I think of the Pirates and Rays as being similar to one another. The A’s belong to the same small group. There are differences, obviously, and the organizations each have their own specific approaches, but these are smaller-budget operations that adhere to similar roster-building philosophies. They try not to ever completely tear down, accumulating years of team control while aiming for something close to .500. Constant churn is an unavoidable reality. It’s almost a feature instead of a bug. In a case like this year’s A’s, a club can get hot, but I’m used to seeing these teams in similar positions. So I wouldn’t expect them to swing major trades with one another.
Less than a month ago, the Rays were 11 games back of the second wild-card slot. In the other league, the Pirates were 10 games back of the second wild-card slot. Both of the teams were expected to sell, because competing down the stretch was unrealistic. Since then, the Rays have won nine times and lost nine times. The Pirates, however, have gone 15-4. The Rays are still very much out of the hunt, but the Pirates are within 3.5 games of the playoffs. That imbalance in the short-term outlooks has led us to a blockbuster. This is the time of year when a very small sample can dramatically change a team’s course. Because they caught fire at just the right time, the Pirates have decided to go for it.
Both the Rays and Pirates already thought they could be close in the future. The Pirates’ last 19 games have made all the difference. They’ve opened up a shot in 2018, which was enough to tip all the necessary scales.
This is a fun one. It’s fun because of how surprising it is. It’s fun because of all the big names involved. And it’s fun because of all the team-control years. This isn’t just some move for a two-month rental. For now, we can ignore the unnamed third player going to the Rays. Archer is under contract in 2019 for $7.5 million. In 2020, there’s a $9-million club option, and in 2021, there’s an $11-million club option. Archer signed one of those team-friendly contracts that gave him so much surplus value. The Pirates wouldn’t be able to afford him otherwise. As for Glasnow? He’s under team control through 2023. Meadows looks like he’ll be under team control through 2024. There are specific reasons why the Pirates were willing to do this, while the Rays were also willing to do this, even though both teams expect to be competitive next year. The Pirates’ boost for the stretch run is part of it.
Archer, obviously, improves the Pirates’ pitching. He’ll improve the rotation in the way that Keone Kela will improve the bullpen. Archer remains a strikeout pitcher, and he hasn’t lost anything off of his arm strength. He’ll step into the void left by Gerrit Cole, and one can’t overlook the fact that Archer has spent his career pitching in the strongest division in baseball. He’s been in a pitcher-friendly park, yeah, but he’s had to face a lot of the Red Sox, Yankees, Blue Jays, and Orioles, while all of those teams could hit. Archer has faced some of the very toughest lineups, and you can adjust his numbers to make him look even better.
Furthermore, Archer has been on the major-league disabled list all of one time, and that was for a strained left abdominal. He hasn’t had an arm or shoulder problem — at least not one that was publicized — and he exceeded 200 innings in each of the last three seasons. I’m never really sure how much you can truly count on a pitcher’s durability, but Archer has certainly held it together to this point. He’s spent hardly any time on the sidelines.
Over the past three calendar years, 126 different pitchers have thrown at least 300 innings. By park-adjusted FIP, Archer has ranked in the 77th percentile. By park-adjusted xFIP, he’s ranked in the 87th percentile, and remember this doesn’t account for quality of opposition. Archer has managed the same strikeout-minus-walk rate as Luis Severino and Zack Greinke. The peripherals are good. Archer has been getting as many swings and misses as ever. Just the other week, he struck out 13 Marlins without a single walk. If the Pirates aren’t getting a true No. 1, there’s reason to believe they’re getting a solid No. 2. He’s theirs for multiple seasons. Pitchers like this can be incredibly hard to pry away.
The Pirates are losing two players who have been on the major-league roster. Glasnow has gotten his swings and misses, and Meadows got off to a white-hot start. But then, Glasnow’s been a reliever, and he’s still struggling to throw even 60% strikes. Meadows cooled off, and his reputation remains ahead of his statistics. The Pirates might’ve come to feel better about trading Meadows as they’ve come to believe more strongly in Jordan Luplow. If Luplow can be at least most of what Meadows is, then it doesn’t have to be so big a loss. The Pirates probably felt they had an outfielder surplus.
So the Pirates are getting Archer for a pitcher they couldn’t fix, and for an outfielder they might not need. Let’s look at this from the other side. Why would the Rays want to do this — especially on the same day they traded for Tommy Pham? You don’t trade for Pham if you think you’re going to be bad. With Archer, the Rays probably saw some warning signs. And with Glasnow and Meadows, they see a couple of big-league players who could make an immediate difference.
I noted earlier that, over the past three years, Archer ranks in the 77th percentile in FIP-, and the 87th percentile in xFIP-. Those are both good, but on the other hand, he ranks in the 40th percentile in ERA-, largely because he ranks in the 2nd percentile in hard-hit rate. Archer has allowed a lot of loud contact. It’s not always easy to distinguish between real signal and noise, but consider that, over the three years, the Rays have allowed an overall team BABIP of .288. Archer’s BABIP over the same span of time is .318. Archer might be someone who always somewhat disappoints.
And then there’s something else. Archer is predominantly a fastball-slider pitcher, and he’s thrown one of the better sliders around. But look what’s happened to his slider run values over time:
- 2015: +25.2 runs above average
- 2016: +22.0
- 2017: +19.5
- 2018: -0.1
That might overstate what’s actually happened, but for a few months now, the Rays have seen firsthand a slider that hasn’t worked quite as well as it used to. Archer remains a talented pitcher, and because of the contract, Archer remains a valuable pitcher. But he might well be a diminished pitcher. At least, it seems like he could be worse than his strikeouts and walks would suggest. The Rays might’ve gotten ahead of something here.
And Meadows was very recently a top-10 Baseball America overall prospect. Glasnow was recently in the top-15. I’m reminded of when the Rays traded James Shields after finishing 90-72. The next year, they finished 92-71, having been able to plug Wil Myers into the lineup. Jake Odorizzi wasn’t far behind in the rotation. The Rays are worse for trading Archer, absolutely. Blake Snell is their one remaining conventional major-league starter. But Archer wasn’t packaged for prospects, exactly. He’s gone for players who could help right away. Glasnow might throw 100 innings in 2019, and Meadows might bat 500 times.
To Glasnow’s credit, in a multi-inning reliever role, he’s struck out 30% of his opponents. He’s missed plenty of bats even despite a limited pitch mix, and his xFIP- sits at a solid 84. Glasnow is useful today, but the Rays are going to try to adjust him. They’re going to want to get more secondary stuff in the zone, and they might introduce a new pitch or new grip. Last year in Triple-A, Glasnow was dominant. The Rays believe they can get him to throw more strikes, whether he be starting or “opening.” The stuff is already working okay, even with Glasnow being wild.
With Meadows, the appeal is speed, contact, and average power. Meadows has been good for a 110 major-league wRC+, although he hasn’t hit so well in Triple-A. The tools are a little ahead of the numbers, but Meadows is about ready to be back in the bigs. Next year, the Rays might have a regular outfield of Meadows, Pham, and Kevin Kiermaier. Even if Meadows isn’t a star right away, he should be around average, which nullifies some of the Archer loss. If Meadows and Glasnow both make positive contributions as soon as 2019, the Rays will be pleased. They will have moved Chris Archer without taking a major step back.
Glasnow might never find the zone enough. Meadows might never walk enough, or stay sufficiently healthy. There’s risk on both sides of this move. There always is, with any move, but the Pirates are taking a big chance by making a splash. They’re the kind of organization that usually needs to rely on its own internal reinforcements. Moving Glasnow and Meadows means a loss of team-control years, and those mean more to the Pirates than the average club. The Rays are also taking a big chance by dealing a valuable and popular starting pitcher, right when the team thinks it’s on the verge of being good. The Rays need to hit with at least one of the players coming back. You never want to look back on a trade like this and feel like you ended up with nothing in return.
The Rays move ever forward, collecting talent and limited service time. This is their normal kind of trade, only on a grander scale. This isn’t the Pirates’ normal kind of trade, but this is the kind of trade the front office has by and large avoided making over the years. The Pirates always said they thought they could compete in 2018, even after their offseason moves, and here we see a commitment to the stretch run, to say nothing of the seasons beyond. The Pirates have pushed chips forward in the interest of sticking around and making some noise. It might not work out as well as they want, but you have to admire their courage.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.