The Time to Trade Chris Archer Has Arrived

Around this time of year, the free-agent and trade markets begin to feel like stacked dominoes – one domino falling sets many more in motion. The big domino to fall yesterday was, of course, Chris Sale’s trade to Boston. It’s only natural to wonder what the fallout from that trade will be. The Nationals were reportedly very interested in Sale: Will they look elsewhere for elite rotation help now that he’s no longer available? Other teams still said to be interested in top-of-the-rotation arms include the Braves, the Astros and even the World Champion Cubs. (I’m still practicing adding that “World Champion” qualifier on the Cubs. It hasn’t stopped looking weird, has it?) As long as teams continue to look for elite starting pitching, one name will continue to be thrown around: Chris Archer. Now that the Red Sox have added Sale and are clearly attempting to build the American League’s “team to beat,” is the time right for the Rays to finally pull the trigger and deal Archer?

A few weeks ago, Jeff Sullivan compared the potential trade value of both Archer and Sale. The first conclusion he reached – that Sale has been better than Archer – quickly passed the sniff test. The second conclusion is significantly more intriguing. Here’s what he had to say:

“Chris Archer might be a worse pitcher than Sale is, but his contract is more team-friendly still. And one should expect that to make a difference, these all being negotiations taking place in the 2016 industry landscape. If you want to trade for one of these starters, Chris Sale could be the more affordable of the two.”

Archer and Sale are six months apart in age and both under contract for just under $40 million, but Archer’s contract includes team options for the 2020 and 2021 seasons. Sale’s contract, meanwhile, expires after the 2019 season. So, for essentially the same amount of money a club can acquire either three years of Sale or five years of a pitcher who has been nearly as good. Consequently, Archer’s contract provides — to use the hip lingo — more surplus value. In fact, due to those extra two seasons Jeff found that “Chris Archer’s surplus value is 152% of Chris Sale’s surplus value.” The White Sox just pulled in a player who has previously been listed by some publications as the No. 1 prospect in the sport. If the Rays can reasonably command an even higher asking price for Archer, then, at the very least, they have to be listening to offers.

Should the Rays feel pressure to actually move Archer, though? According to our much-too-early projections, the Rays are currently projected for an 82-80 season – exactly the same as their division rivals in Toronto and New York. By RS/G (runs scored per game), however, their offense projects to be the worst in the American League, and that’s including the projected production of the newest Ray, catcher Wilson Ramos. Given the unlikelihood that they will be players for the remaining big-name free-agent position players like Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion — in addition to the concurrent likelihood that other AL teams will get those guys — the Rays only figure to fall further back in league offense.

Of course, it’s also worth noting that their pitching projects to be among the best in the league. Their projected RA/G (runs allowed per game) is 4.32, a figure which trails only Cleveland’s mark (4.20) and, of course, Sale’s new team, the Red Sox (4.26). Much of that projected strength is due to Archer, who’s the undisputed ace of a rotation that will likely be filled out by Drew Smyly, Jake Odorizzi, Blake Snell, and Alex Cobb. Were Archer to depart or Cobb to struggle in his first full season since Tommy John surgery, the Rays also have Matt Andriese, who looked every bit the part of an effective back-of-the-rotation pitcher last season.

It should go without saying that the Rays will want to be competitive at some point over the next five seasons. But if they don’t realistically expect to compete with the powerhouse Red Sox roster in 2017, they have to consider cashing in Archer now by dealing him to a team both likely to benefit from and also willing to pay for that 2017 production. In return, the Rays will be looking for cost-controlled players who can help the team get back to the postseason.

So now that we know Sale’s price tag, what can the Rays expect an Archer trade to look like? Although the surplus value discrepancy is significant – recall that Archer’s surplus value is 50% more than that of Sale’s – it would be unwise to expect Archer’s return to be half again as valuable as Sale’s, the simple reason being that the extra surplus value comes in years four and five of Archer’s contract and the further out from the present you get, the bigger the error bars in projected value become – especially for pitchers. If nothing else, though, the potential bonus of those two extra years and the projected surplus-value advantage should give Archer’s projected trade value a floor of the package the White Sox just received.

And what exactly did the White Sox get from Boston? Eric Longenhagen has you covered with a full write-up. To summarize, though, there’s Yoan Moncada, who was listed by Baseball America and MLB.com as the best prospect in the game last summer. There’s certainly room to debate whether Moncada or Andrew Benintendi was actually the best prospect in Boston’s system, but no matter what side of that debate on which you fall, the undeniable truth is that Moncada is among the best prospects in the sport. Add to the mix a pitcher like Michael Kopech with a sky-high ceiling and two very interesting secondary pieces in outfielder Luis Alexander Basabe and you’ve got one heckuva trade package.

This puts the Rays in a tremendously strong position with potential trade partners. The precedent is set for a monster return. The free-agent pitching market is, in a word, suboptimal. And, most importantly, the Rays don’t have to move Archer. If a team decides to go for it and add a top-tier starting pitcher, Archer may just be the best available option now — and the Rays have bargaining power on their side. That ultimately positions them to receive a player like Javy Baez from the Cubs or Victor Robles from the Nationals or another elite-level prospect. The Sale trade just put the Rays in the driver’s seat and it could well mean the end of Archer’s tenure in Tampa Bay.





Corinne Landrey writes for FanGraphs and MLB.com's Cut4 site. Follow her on Twitter @crashlandrey.

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Joe Don
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Joe Don

You can stop with the “World Champion” qualifier now. Every Cubs fan already knows and the rest of us are tired of hearing it or don’t care.

Baltar
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Baltar

I like hearing it.