When describing Garrett Stallings, University of Tennessee baseball coach Tony Vitello worries he’s too effusive in his praise. He doesn’t want to come off as a cheerleader, a coach simply trying to earn points with recruits, but when it comes to Stallings, he almost can’t help it.
“He literally is the best kid we’ve coached here,” Vitello said. “I know I’ll sound like a homer saying that or I’ve got the poms poms out for him, but we’ve had some good kids, and I don’t mind them hearing me ever say that.
“He just became the model for what we wanted to do. We refer to him nonstop as an example of how to carry out your business or how to compete or what you can become.”
Stallings was one of two minor league pitchers the Orioles acquired Wednesday for trading shortstop José Iglesias to the Los Angeles Angels. The right-hander was Los Angeles’ fifth-round draft pick in 2019 after he posted a 3.33 ERA in 16 starts as a junior for Vitello’s Volunteer program.
He was a player the Orioles targeted in that draft and one executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias has kept tabs on since. Although adding him and teenage right-hander Jean Pinto cost Iglesias, Elias was thrilled to bring another potential starter into the organization.
In 2020, Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer and Bruce Zimmermann made their major league debuts. Michael Baumann, Zac Lowther and Alexander Wells were just added to the 40-man roster. Former first-round picks Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall represent the system’s top arms.
“I think it’s another great starting pitching prospect to add to what’s becoming a very impressive stack of them in our system, and we’re going to need all of them that we can get,” Elias said. “I don’t know that I would trade our starting pitching in the minor leagues right now for anyone else’s, and this makes me feel even stronger that that might be the case.”
The Orioles made the move despite Stallings never officially throwing a pitch for an Angels affiliate. After he led the Southeastern Conference in innings in the 2019 regular season, Stallings was shut down for the year after Los Angeles drafted him, the organization’s standard practice for heavily used pitchers. The coronavirus pandemic then canceled the 2020 minor league season, but that didn’t keep Stallings from preparing for his return to baseball. He routinely trained at Tennessee and in Nashville before being added to the Angels’ player pool in July.
“Garrett’s not a guy to sit on his laurels,” Vitello said. “He’s gonna stay loyal to the path that got him there, and that means every day’s a work day.”
Stallings then pitched in the Angels’ fall instructional camp, where Orioles scouts were able to see his outings and cull video and data from those appearances. In that way, trading for Stallings seemed less risky than the Orioles’ other deals this year involving prospects, Elias said.
“We knew what he was in 2019,” Elias said, “and then to see those performances a month ago, see the stuff, the velocity, and all of it be a little bit better than what he showed in college, it’s pretty encouraging.”
In 2019 with Tennessee, Stallings struck out 106 over 102⅔ innings, nearly tripling his strikeout total from each of his first two seasons. That spike, Vitello said, wasn’t the product of new pitch or a changed grip, but simply the continuation of the work ethic Stallings had displayed since Vitello took charge of the program between his freshman and sophomore seasons.
There were nights Vitello would be up late at his office making recruiting calls, and afterward, he went into the training room to walk on the treadmill for a bit. Often, Stallings appeared not long after to get in extra work, even if it was simple as jumping rope.
“It was just taking what we brought to the program to an extreme, and in turn, you saw his body composition and just the overall appearance he had change right before our eyes,” Vitello said. “He was not blessed with any one extreme genetic trait that makes him an MLB pitcher ... but what he did was make his physique and his body as athletic and in as good of shape as he possibly could in his time here.
“More than anything, he was so intense during practice at working on whatever he was that day that he probably got more out of his 10 repetitions than another guy would’ve got out of his 10.”
That approach is what Vitello and his coaching staff seek out of their current players. Despite being more than a year removed from being part of the program, Stallings’ name is brought up constantly. He has never met some of the Volunteers’ younger players, but he offered his phone number to all members of Tennessee’s pitching staff, telling them to never hesitate to reach out for advice.
During his time at Tennessee, he was a member of VOLeaders Academy, a university organization where student-athletes could get involved in local and international communities, and took a humanitarian trip to Ecuador. Those efforts and his academic success made Stallings the SEC’s 2019 Scholar-Athlete of the Year for baseball.
He still found time to succeed on the field. Vitello has faith he’ll do the same with the Orioles.
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“In the categories of work ethic and coachability and just things that don’t really require talent, I don’t know that I have the right to say he’ll beat everybody, but he’ll be just as good as anyone in all those categories,” Vitello said. “I gotta believe the organization will fall in love with him.”