Rays Bring Back Chris Archer on One-Year Pact

Maybe the Rays are getting nervous. Two and half months ago, they watched Charlie Morton sign with Atlanta as a free agent. About a month later, they traded staff ace Blake Snell to San Diego. Those were the two best starters on a team that leaned heavily on its rotation, but Tampa’s only addition so far this winter has been embattled right-hander Michael Wacha at a mere $3 million. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays have landed one major free agent after another, and the Yankees still look very much like a juggernaut. As of Tuesday morning, Tampa Bay ranked 10th in the American League in our Depth Charts projected WAR standings — fourth in the AL East — just a few months after winning the pennant.

But with spring training (theoretically) fast approaching, the Rays finally signed another starting pitcher on Tuesday, adding a familiar face to the rotation.

To be clear, Chris Archer is no replacement for the starters Tampa Bay lost this winter. He’s posted an ERA over 4.00 in each of his last four seasons and missed all of 2020 after undergoing surgery to treat neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome. Effectiveness in the first season back from that injury — one of the most serious a pitcher can experience — is far from guaranteed. Tampa’s familiarity with Archer, however, made the team willing to bet on the 32-year-old right-hander anyway.

Archer, who was originally drafted by Cleveland, made his major league debut with the Rays in 2012 and pitched for them for six and a half years. He signed an extension with the team at the start of the 2014 season after just two years with the team — not far off from the timeline of Snell’s early-career extension. Like Snell, however, he would eventually get traded long before that deal reached its end date, getting sent to Pittsburgh in July 2018 for the now-infamous package of Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows and Shane Baz.

Archer’s Pirates career did not go as planned, to put it lightly. Though he pitched acceptably down the stretch, he turned in the worst season of his career in 2019, with a 5.19 ERA and 5.02 FIP. He also did multiple stints on the injured list, first because of his thumb and then because of his shoulder. Archer’s last appearance in a Pirates uniform came in August 2019; the team declined his $11 million club option for 2021 — a decision that would have been unthinkable even a couple of years ago — after last season. In total, Archer was worth just 1.5 WAR as a Pirate. Glasnow and Meadows have combined for 7.8 WAR with the Rays and still have seven years of team control remaining between them, while Baz is the No. 7 prospect in baseball’s best farm system.

Being part of one of baseball’s all-time worst trades makes it easy to forget how good Archer was in Tampa. From 2014 to ’17, he was worth 15.4 WAR, nearly four wins per season. He was striking out 10 batters per nine inning when only five qualified starters in baseball were doing it, not 19. He was good enough, right up until the time of the trade, that day-of stories were more incredulous about the Pirates’ overall plans than they were the deal itself. Glasnow and Meadows were very good prospects, but their weaknesses were clear. That they have played so well in Tampa is as much a credit to the Rays as it is a failure on the part of Pittsburgh.

The Pirates’ biggest failure, though, was actively making Archer worse. My first story on this site was on how Pittsburgh had him gotten him to start throwing a sinker. Overnight, Archer went from never throwing sinkers to tossing them a quarter of the time, essentially even with his four-seamer. It was a way of incorporating him into the team’s already-outdated pitching philosophy, a tweak similar to the ones Pittsburgh had previously imposed upon Glasnow and Gerrit Cole. And like the others, Archer’s adjustment didn’t take. His sinker got crushed, with batters hitting .378 with a .778 slugging percentage against it, and two weeks into June, he was carrying a 5.79 ERA and 6.15 FIP.

Coincidentally — at least, I’m pretty sure it’s a coincidence — in his next start after that story ran, Archer shelved his sinker and never brought it back. A pitch he threw about 20% of the time for the first two months of the season fell to a usage rate of less than 1% over his final two months. The simultaneous bumps to his performance were significant.

When Archer was free to use the tools the put him in the best position to succeed — his hard four-seamer and wipeout slider — and to ditch those that did him no good, he was back to looking a lot like the pitcher he was in Tampa. Had he been able to pitch in 2020 with his old arsenal, he may have performed well enough to land a multi-year deal, or even convince Pittsburgh to pick up his option and trade him for prospects.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, which means the Rays will need to wait to see how much of the old Archer returns after surgery. They’ll be keeping an eye on the velocity of his fastball, which averaged over 94 mph pre-injury, as well as that of his slider, which sat in the upper-80s. If Archer can still throw hard and miss bats, he should be a pretty solid mid-rotation starter, likely penciled in somewhere behind one of the pitchers he was traded for. If he can’t, the harm done to the Rays is practically non-existent.

This deal makes a lot of sense for all sides. Tampa gets to claim a rare combination in this deal: It’s a buy-low bet on a pitcher with substantial upside and a chance to bring back an old fan favorite. Archer, meanwhile, returns to a setting he knows well with a front office and coaching staff that probably give him the best chance of anyone to re-establish his value and collect a much larger paycheck next winter. It will probably be a while before we hear Archer’s name and don’t immediately think of that trade, which isn’t fair to him. I suppose he deserves to go pitch in the city where that trade is most popular.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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2 years ago

Seems like a smart signing. Archer’s surgery probably pushed a lot of teams out for his service. The TOS has nasty implications and a few cases where pitchers essentially never recover their value. A preliminary search suggests is similar to TJ in severity, but that there isn’t so much time necessary to regain the velocity/control that TJ requires.

It seems the Rays believe this. If they thought he couldn’t come back this season, then they would have asked for more years on the contract. All appearances suggest this is Archer attempting to rebuild value to get another payout in ’22 free agency.