The Twins Fill a Rotation Void With Chris Archer

© Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, the Twins got their dessert: they signed the top free agent in the market and installed him in the middle of the lineup. This week, they’re eating their vegetables, in the form of a one-year deal with Chris Archer:

Those incentives are a modern-day version of a games started bonus. Archer will receive them based on the number of games he either starts or pitches three innings of relief in – basically starting or being the headliner after an opener.

I like the idea of this contract quite a bit, for both Archer and the Twins. From Archer’s perspective, it’s a bet on himself with a financial cushion if things don’t work out. When he signed in Tampa Bay last year, he hadn’t pitched since 2019, and he didn’t even accrue 20 innings. He hurt his forearm in his second start of the year, missed four months, then hurt his hip not long after returning. A starting role in the majors seemed far from a certainty.

By signing with the Twins, Archer is immediately an integral part of a contending team. There simply isn’t a lot of rotation depth here; offseason acquisitions Sonny Gray and Dylan Bundy fill the top two spots, and neither is a paragon of health. After that, it’s a bushel of interesting but unproven youngsters. Joe Ryan throws a fastball two-thirds of the time and makes it work, but as with anyone who relies so heavily on a heater, there’s relief risk in his game. Bailey Ober is 6-foot-9 and doesn’t walk anybody, but had never pitched more than 80 innings in a season before 2021. Josh Winder hasn’t yet made his big league debut.

If Archer returns to some semblance of his former self, he’ll be a valuable addition to the Twins. He’s unlikely to suddenly return to his 2015 peak – 212 innings of 3.23 ERA and 2.90 FIP – but with the exception of one miserable season with the Pirates, his floor when healthy seems to be that of an effective innings-eater. That’s not a given, of course. That one miserable season I glossed over was his last full season! It gets worse – he’s down roughly two ticks on his fastball since that season, and closer to four from his peak. At 33, you could imagine a cascading failure where his weaker fastball means batters lay off his secondaries, which gets him behind in counts, which forces him to use the fastball more… you get the idea.

I think he’ll probably be fine, though. Archer never made hay with his fastball. It’s a classic four-seamer with decent vertical carry, but something about the combination of release point and overall movement always made it play down. Even at his peak, he never eclipsed a 7.5% swinging strike rate on the pitch.

Instead, he wins with his slider. He throws it a lot – more often, in some years, than his fastball. It doesn’t move much – roughly three inches of glove-side run and very little vertical break. And batters consistently look like buffoons against it. In that 2019 season in Pittsburgh, the one with an ERA and FIP in the fives, he drew chases on 42.4% of the sliders he threw outside of the zone, an elite mark. He got swinging strikes on 23.5% of all the sliders he threw – sixth across all starters in baseball.

In Tampa Bay, he doubled down on this approach, scrapping his cutter and going to the most streamlined pitch mix of his career. Against right-handed batters, he threw his slider 50% of the time and his fastball 47% of the time. That’s… well, that’s all the time. He kept a changeup against lefties, but against the majority of his opponents, it was a two-ingredient recipe.

I’m not sure if he’ll change that plan in Minnesota, but I like the idea. I don’t think that he needs to be transcendent as a starter – if he’s giving the Twins five league average innings every fifth day, that’s a huge improvement on the status quo. If he makes 25 starts, throws 125 innings, and has a 4.70 ERA, that’s a success for the Twins. When you put it that way, the goal seems easily achievable – Archer has only had an ERA above 4.70 once in his career, and it’s not like he turned into sand overnight. He threw 15 innings and put up a 4.20 ERA (albeit with a 5.17 FIP) in August and September last year, and he was better than that in two abbreviated outings early in the season. It’s easy to point at a guy who was once good and later a Pirate and write him off, but that’s not the case here. The Rays are no dummies, and they clearly thought he had at least a little left in the tank.

As for the Twins, there are no two ways about it: this is a move they made because they couldn’t make others. If the price were right, Sean Manaea would be wearing a TC cap right this minute. When Oakland traded Chris Bassitt, Matt Olson, and Matt Chapman in quick succession, the Twins were the obvious landing spot for Manaea or perhaps Frankie Montas – a pitching-needy team that wants to win in 2022, with plenty of the near-majors prospects Oakland consistently targets available in trade.

The A’s have reportedly asked for the moon and the stars in trade for Manaea and Montas, and I don’t fault them for it. Both will still have value during the season – you can always go back and ask for less. But I also don’t fault the Twins for moving on when they couldn’t find a match, and the structure of the deal they signed with Archer allows them to change plans mid-stream if they aren’t getting what they need from him.

By pegging Archer’s pay to his innings pitched, the team will pay him market value almost no matter what he does. If he scuffles for three starts and then gets hurt, no worries – it’s a $3.5 million deal, your standard veteran dart throw. They can call Oakland back, offer them a near-majors-ready prospect you’ve never heard of (Cole Sands? Neat name!), and move on with their lives. If Archer gives them a big pile of workmanlike innings, awesome! They’ll be paying him Manaea money for it (he’s making $9.75 million this year), and probably getting sub-Manaea production in return, but not by much, and it won’t cost them any prospects.

They could, of course, also keep Archer and trade for Manaea or Montas. Starters are neat that way – it’s nearly impossible to have enough. This contract isn’t going to turn the Twins from zero to hero, or be the one deal that turns Chris Archer from has-been to Hall of Famer. But it’s the kind of move Minnesota has to make to capitalize on the Correa signing, and they did it in a way that benefits player and team. It’s often lazy analysis to call a deal win-win and move on with life, but in this case I really do like this for both sides.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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2 years ago

I’ll fill the comment void! I don’t hate this deal for the Twins, but I was hoping for more of a sure thing (as much as a pitcher is ever a sure thing) than another gamble. I’d guess this means a trade is likely out until around the ASB.