There are a number of roster decisions the Rays have to make this offseason. If the 2021 season started today, the starting rotation would only have three pitchers written in ink: Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow and Ryan Yarbrough. Yonny Chirinos will miss most if not all of 2021 as he recovers from Tommy John Surgery, so too will Jalen Beeks. And if that was not enough, the Rays rotation will also be sans Charlie Morton.
While the Rays have depth in starting pitching, bulk pitching, whatever you want to call it, it’s fair to wonder how confident the Rays are in that depth to carry two major league rotation spots—or more should injury arise—over an assumed 162 game season. As of now, any two of Josh Fleming, Aaron Slegers or Trevor Richards are options who at least have substantial major league experience.
Although all three were counted on to get some big outs for the Rays in 2020, it’s hard to imagine any of them soaking up 150 major league innings. There is of course, the possibility for more openers and bullpen games in this scenario to limit their exposure when facing tough teams. Or, they can tap into the free agent market for some more predictably reliable and proven innings—perhaps someone with a familiar face.
Chris Archer, of course, was famously traded to the Pirates at the 2018 deadline in a deal that netted Glasnow, Austin Meadows and later on Shane Baz. The Pirates were in full buyer mode, but it was the Rays that finished that season with 90 wins while the Bucs scuffled to just 82. While it would be poetic to come full circle with Archer back in a Rays uniform, let’s not miss the point!
Archer wasn’t bad with the Pirates after the deal, but never quite captured the ‘getting out of the AL East will make him better’ narrative, pitching to a 4.30 ERA/4.00 FIP/3.53 xFIP. Things got much worse in 2019 for Flaco Fuerte, as he pitched to an unsightly 5.19 ERA/5.02 FIP/4.36 xFIP. In all, Archer has a 4.71 ERA in 33 starts in a Pirates uniform, which would have been a career worst had it all been in one season
So why the fascination? Doesn’t seem like there is much here. He’ll be entering his age 32 season and didn’t pitch at all in 2020 as he recovered from Thoracic Outlet Surgery. Is there hope? The short answer is yes, but the longer, more realistic answer is, it’s a little more complicated than that.
It is common knowledge at this point that the Pirates’ past obsession with the sinker essentially ruined Archer. The pitch wasn’t good by any metric, he threw it far too often, and because of it, the pitch got absolutely torched in 2019 to the tune of an .803 xSLG (not a typo) and a .522 xwOBA. Once he ditched the sinker on June 16, things were much better from him, right up until he was shut down.
Once that transition took place, the turnaround began for Archer. From that day until he went down on August 20, he had a 4.65 ERA/3.83 FIP/3.80 xFIP, translating to a 108 ERA-/86 FIP-/86 xFIP-. His 31.4% K% during that span was 12th best in baseball, and interestingly, tied with Charlie Morton. But it isn’t so easy to say that abandoning the sinker makes Archer a surefire bounce back candidate.
Can he replace Morton?
It is perfectly fair and reasonable to be skeptical of the idea that Chris Archer could be a one to one replacement of Charlie Morton given the recent success of the latter and struggles of the former. However, if we isolate each pitcher’s last four full seasons—Morton’s best years and Archer’s post-‘budding ace’ years—we actually see the gap between the two isn’t all that far, especially regarding their peripherals.
Morton vs. Archer
Now if we further isolate the production and remove Archer’s 2019 where he was more a product of his environment than he was his talent, the results become a little closer. To make the comparison fair, I also removed Morton’s 2020 season.
Morton vs. Archer II
To illustrate that I am not simply cherry picking data to prove my point, it’s worth noting that although Archer’s four seam fastball velocity was down in 2019, but it did increase from 93 to 94.5 throughout the course of the year, coinciding with the change in pitch mix. His slider, though not as sharp as years past, was still a plus pitch, posting a .299 xwOBA and a career high 42.2% rate of whiffs per swing.
Of course there would be some concerns. Archer is on the wrong side of 30, and will be recovering from surgery. But even with these caveats, he is worth a look. Steamer projects him at 1.9 WAR for 2021. That’s below Morton’s 3.0 WAR projection, but it’s not dramatically lower.
Could Archer be signed for a one-year deal between $6-8 million? If so, the Rays could fill a need in the rotation without having to spend prospect capital, maintaining flexibility to add wins elsewhere should an opportunity arise.