MIAMI -- It was during a five-minute break in between meetings for the CBA on Monday afternoon when Jacob Stallings received news that he was part of a trade between the Marlins and Pirates. Miami, hoping to compete in the ultra-competitive National League East, solidified its catching situation by acquiring him for right-hander Zach Thompson and prospects Kyle Nicolas and Connor Scott.
The addition of Stallings paved the way for the Marlins on Tuesday to deal Jorge Alfaro to the Padres for a player to be named.
For an organization with talented young pitching like the Marlins, placing an emphasis on a plus defender at catcher was a focal point. Stallings, who turns 32 on Dec. 22, is the reigning NL Gold Glove Award recipient after tying for the MLB lead with 21 defensive runs saved, regardless of position. He also finished as the only Major League backstop not to allow a passed ball in 104 games behind the plate. Stallings' 8.8 FRM -- FanGraphs’ calculation of catcher framing value -- tied for the best mark in the NL with the Brewers' Omar Narváez. According to Baseball-Reference, Stallings accumulated 3 WAR in 2021.
"It's important," CEO Derek Jeter said. "We have young pitchers. You need someone that is going to help them continue to develop, not only Sandy [Alcantara], but the other guys that are coming as well."
It has been quite the road for Stallings, who will enter his first year of arbitration eligibility this offseason. He was designated for assignment in 2016, outrighted later that year after having his contract selected, then outrighted off the roster again in ‘19. He served as a backup to both Elias Díaz and fan favorite (for both Miami and Pittsburgh) Francisco Cervelli until Stallings got his shot in '20 during the shortened season. During that span, Stallings saw the most growth in the receiving aspect of his game; he dove into analytics, studying Austin Hedges, Tyler Flowers and Yasmani Grandal. At the end of each day, Stallings would watch footage of borderline but frameable pitches. With experience, he learned how to read swings from batters.
Since becoming a regular, Stallings has a 92 OPS+ in 154 games. In 2021, he ranked in the 82nd percentile in walk rate and the 78th percentile in chase rate, though his hard-hit rate (27th percentile) and average exit velocity (28th) were well below league average. Most important, his body held up for a career-high 112 games; he showed he could be the primary backstop for a ballclub.
"I never thought that I would be [the centerpiece of a trade], even to this day," Stallings said. "I've said this before, but I heard Derek Jeter say it I think in his Hall of Fame speech ... he said, 'When you're playing, you're really only concerned with keeping a job and getting a job.' And that's really been my focus. Just trying to keep a job, stay in the big leagues and reach my potential, and just try to get better and be as good as I can be. So that's really my focus and always has been throughout my journey."
In return for Stallings, Miami avoided parting with its top-tier starting pitchers and prospects. Signed to a Minor League deal last November, Thompson began the season as a reliever at Triple-A Jacksonville before building up as a starter when injuries ravaged the big league rotation. From his MLB debut on June 7 until season's end, the 28-year-old recorded a 3.24 ERA in 26 games (14 starts).
Nicolas (former No. 16 prospect) was promoted from High-A Beloit to Double-A Pensacola during his first professional season in 2021. The 22-year-old right-hander saw improved results with the Blue Wahoos, posting a 2.52 ERA in eight starts. Connor (former No. 23 prospect), Miami's current ownership group's first Draft pick (13th overall in 2018), posted a .779 OPS at Beloit in '21. Outfielders JJ Bleday, Peyton Burdick and Griffin Conine were ahead of the 22-year-old Scott in the deep system's rankings and closer to being big league ready.
"We have been able to keep those upper-echelon prospects throughout this whole process," general manager Kim Ng said. "I think that we hope that those guys are here for us as we move forward, and as we mature as an organization, we're looking for a lot of those players to step in when needed."
Stallings' arrival signified the end of Alfaro's tenure in Miami. Acquired in the J.T. Realmuto deal in February 2019, Alfaro posted just an 82 OPS+ and led the NL in passed balls once across three seasons as the primary catcher. Injuries also limited his productivity.
The writing was on the wall for the 28-year-old, who possesses elite Statcast tools at his position, when Miami acquired two backstops ahead of July's Trade Deadline. Those moves pushed Alfaro to first base and left field to add versatility to his resume before a left calf strain ended his season. According to MLB Trade Rumors, Stallings' projected 2022 salary is $2.6 million, while Alfaro's is $2.7 million in his second year or arbitration eligibility.