Pittsburgh Pirates: Grading the Jacob Stallings Trade
The Pittsburgh Pirates have traded Jacob Stallings to the Miami Marlins for three players. Was the return for the Pirates worth what they gave up?
As we approach the deadline for the CBA, teams are getting more and more aggressive to acquire pieces and sign players. Who knows how long the lockout will be, so teams are trying to get as much done as possible. One team that has gotten aggressive as we have come closer to the deadline is the Miami Marlins. After signing veteran outfielder Avisail Garcia, they’ve now made a big splash, acquiring backstop Jacob Stallings from the Pittsburgh Pirates. But from the Pirate perspective, does the return match what was given up?
The big-name being moved was Stallings. Stallings took over as the regular catcher down the stretch in the 2019 season and ran away with it. This past season Stallings hit .246/.335/.369 with a .312 wOBA, and 95 wRC+. He walked at a healthy 11.5% rate while smashing 8 home runs in 427 plate appearances. Overall, not fantastic offensive production, but slightly better than your average catcher. But his defense is where it’s at.
Stallings racked up +21 DRS, the most by any position player in 2021. The next best defender per DRS was Carlos Correa, who had +20 DRS. He was also a phenomenal framer, having +8.8 framing runs. According to FanGraphs, that was tied for the second-most among all backstops.
The return for Stallings included three players. Among them, Zach Thompson has appeared in the Majors. Thompson had a solid rookie campaign, posting a 3.24 ERA, 3.69 FIP, and 1.21 WHIP in 75 innings.
He worked as a swingman, making 14 starts and appearing in 25 total games. While Thompson wasn’t a strikeout machine, only getting 21% strikeout rate, nor a control artist, having an 8.9% walk rate, he did have a .72 HR/9. He was well above average in terms of exit velo (87.6 MPH, top 76th percentile), and hard-hit rate (34.4%, top 82nd percentile).
Though the underlying numbers are a bit worrying. Thompson worked to a 4.65 xFIP, 4.58 SIERA, and 4.64 DRA. Among those, his DRA was the only one average or better. On the plus side, he was in the 50th percentile or better in all of Baseball Savant’s expected stats. Thompson is a late bloomer as 2022 will be his age-28 campaign. He’ll likely slot into the starting rotation for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Among the two prospects the Pittsburgh Pirates received, Connor Scott ranks the highest in the Marlin farm system at #16. The outfielder had a good season at High-A. In 435 trips to the plate, Scott posted a .276/.333/.446 line, .348 wOBA, and 112 wRC+. Scott showed both power and speed, blasting 10 long balls, having a .170 ISO, and stealing 14 bases.
Scott brings power to the table. He has a projected 55-grade game and raw power tool. He also gives the organization a speedster who has a 70-speed grade. Scott also grades out as a well-above-average defender. By the time he’s fully developed, he is projected to be a 60-grade defender. Scott’s outstanding glove pairs well with his powerful arm, which also is seen as a 60-grade tool. His hit tool is a bit on the fringy side, coming in projected at just a 45.
The last player the Pittsburgh Pirates received was Kyle Nicolas. The Marlins drafted Nicolas in the second round of the 2018 draft. Nicolas pitched at both Low-A and Double-A. He actually did much better after his promotion.
With Miami’s High-A affiliate, Nicolas had a 5.28 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, and 5.03 FIP. But once he reached the upper minors, he had a 2.52 ERA, 3.99 FIP, and 1.22 WHIP. Between both levels, Nicolas had a phenomenal strikeout rate. But his walk rate went from a workable 9.3% to 15% once he went from High-A to Double-A. One major improvement he did make was lowering his HR/9 from 1.96 to 0.69.
Nicolas works with four offerings, but only two project to be above average. Both his fastball and curveball are offerings FanGraphs sees with very good potential. Both grade with a projected-60. But his curve is only projected to be a 45, and his change-up, an even worse 30. He’ll enter the 2022 season at 23-years-old. If Nicolas can improve one of his offerings to an average level, it could be the difference between him landing in the bullpen or the rotation.
Final Thoughts And The Verdict
So far, most of the players Ben Cherington and co. have traded had multiple, large question marks surrounding them. Would Josh Bell ever be consistent enough and hit well enough to offset his terrible first-base defense? How will Jameson Taillon play after pitching less than 50 innings in two years and coming off his second career Tommy John surgery? Can Richard Rodriguez survive the crackdown on sticky substances? Are Adam Frazier’s first two months sustainable?
The only ones that didn’t have large issues surrounding them were Starling Marte and Joe Musgrove. But both didn’t have very much control and at the time, wouldn’t be around long enough to make a large impact on any competing roster. Plus, Musgrove looks like he may fall into a similar boat to Rich-Rod given he had a suspicious downturn in performance in mid-June when MLB started to enforce mound checks, resembling more of the pitcher he was with the Pittsburgh Pirates than in the first two months of 2021.
But Stallings is the first player the Pittsburgh Pirates have traded under Cherington’s watch that could have been part of a competition-ready core, and had more answers than questions surrounding him.
He’s controlled through 2024 and the Pirates have a multitude of young pitchers and position players that will make their debuts next season. Most will likely play a regular role for a good portion of the 2022 campaign.
At least in every large trade the Pittsburgh Pirates have made up until Stallings, there’s at least one player that you can confidently say has the potential to be a long-term part of the club. Liover Peguero, the top prospect the Pirates got back for Marte, is now a consensus top 100 prospect and potentially the team’s long-term shortstop. They also got back a former first round pick for Marte in the form of right-hander Brennan Malone.
David Bednar looks like the team’s closer for the foreseeable future and Hudson Head is still a very high ceiling prospect with five-tool potential. Plus, Endy Rodriguez won his league’s MVP award and Omar Cruz could make his debut next season. They got that quartet for Musgrove.
Roansy Contreras and Miguel Yajure will likely both be in the rotation by the start of May, and Canaan Smith-Njigba may also be up around then. Maikol Escotto is a high-ceiling shortstop prospect who is still about two years away, but has a ton of talent. Those four came from the Yankees for Taillon. He had some bumps, but Eddy Yean showed a fair amount of promise at Low-A. The right-hander was considered the headliner for Bell.
Tucupita Marcano was flung through the minor leagues but has more potential than the player he was traded for, Frazier, when he was a prospect. Finally, Bryse Wilson was a former consensus top 100 prospect, and the Pirates got him for Rodriguez.
This trade, not so much, or at least to the degree as many of the other noteworthy Pirate trades of late. Connor Scott, who was considered the headliner, struggles to draw walks and doesn’t offset that with a low strikeout rate. He may be a great fielder and base runner, but hitting wise, there’s nothing he excels in, nor struggles in. Kyle Nicolas has two plus offerings, but poor command. He has the hallmarks of a future reliever. Zach Thompson looked like a decent rookie, but in surface numbers only.
From a Pirate fan point of view, this is a very light return for Stallings. He’s averaged nearly 3 fWAR per 500 plate appearances since 2019, had multiple years of control remaining, and the biggest point of all, he was the most valuable catcher, both on the free-agent and trade market. Outside of a mention of Oakland A’s Sean Murphy, the only other options who could arguably be starters are Roberto Perez and Yan Gomes, but Stallings is much better than both. The Pirates not only didn’t have to trade him now, but had essentially a near-monopoly on the starting-caliber catcher market.
If you want to take a more baseball-sense approach, Stallings was a 32-year-old backstop whose biggest selling point is defense, something that isn’t rare at the position. He only has a 91 wRC+ since 2019. The outfield prospect the Pittsburgh Pirates received, Scott, could probably easily out-produce Stallings at the plate. If his bat starts slipping with age, he’s pretty much just a 2nd catcher. Who knows how many more 90+ wRC+ seasons Stallings has left at age-32. By age-34, he might no longer be a potential 3.0 fWAR catcher.
Still, as hard as it is to ever see or determine how impactful it was, Stallings’s outstanding defense would have likely helped the Pittsburgh Pirates young and inexperienced pitchers. Now with Steven Brault DFA’d, the most experienced pitcher on the Pittsburgh Pirates roster is Chad Kuhl.
Next season, the Pittsburgh Pirates will have a myriad of young pitchers including top prospects Roansy Contreras and Miguel Yajure. Other noteworthy names we may see sometime next season include Cody Bolton, Austin Roberts, Ricky DeVito, Blake Cederlind, and Yerry De Los Santos. Plus with other guys with potential like Mitch Keller, Bryse Wilson, Max Kranick, JT Brubaker, and Wil Crowe, there’s plenty of room for improvement.
The Pittsburgh Pirates had no rush to move Stallings and pretty much had the market cornered. Plus with his potential influence on the young pitchers, trading him may have potentially been more fruitful. While Stallings did have his downsides such as age and how that would potentially regress his offensive and defensive capabilities, as well as playing 100+ games in the majors in a full season for the first time at age-31, I think the positives outweighed the negatives.
While the prospects the Pittsburgh Pirates got back aren’t awful, it’s quite a disappointing return. I still believe that Stallings was worth at least 1, top 100 prospect given his overall output of being a 3 fWAR/500 PA catcher and the Pirates having a corner on the market. At least a borderline top 100 guy. At the very least, the Pirates should have waited until next off-season. 2023 will be both Henry Davis’ and Endy Rodriguez’s age-23 campaigns. Sure, there were things that bogged down Stallings’ value, but I think there was a lot that also brought it up.