About two months ago, I made my case for the Rays to sign Chris Archer to a one-year deal, as many others here at DRaysBay have as well. Some people enjoyed it, while others absolutely hated the idea—you can see for yourself in the comments section.
But earlier this week, to our excitement (and I assume the excitement of the Rays front office), the Rays have indeed agreed with Archer to a one year, $6.5MM deal. This of course, after the Pirates declined his option for the 2021 season.
This agreement represents a quite stunning story arc. One that began with Archer being traded to Pittsburgh at the 2018 trade deadline for a return that famously included Austin Meadows (who had a 140 wRC+ in 2019), Tyler Glasnow (now the Rays No. 1 starter) and Shane Baz (currently the Rays No. 7 prospect per Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs). With the reunion of the Rays and Archer, this deal has come full circle.
While Archer never quite reached that ace level status in his first go around with the Rays, he was quite good. From 2014-17, Archer ranked sixth among qualified major league pitchers in innings pitched (809.0), 12th in K% (26.7%), and 14th in fWAR (15.4). The problem, of course, was that his run prevention never quite matched up with the ceiling, as evidenced by his 92 ERA- in that span, only eight points off of the league average.
It wouldn’t be prudent for the Rays to think that Archer could recapture all of his past form, but there is still a lot to look forward to. At 32, he should still be at the upper end of him prime. Additionally, even if we are looking solely at 2019 to project to ‘21, there is still reason to be optimistic.
Let’s get a few things out of the way first; there isn’t much reason to be excited about a 5.19 ERA/5.02 FIP. Archer’s overall performance was flat out bad in ‘19. By exit velocity and hard hit rate, he was even worse. ranking in the 28th and 24th percentiles, respectively. But even when Archer was at his best, in say, 2015 when he amassed a stellar 5.1 fWAR, he ranked in the 12th and 5th percentiles in the same categories.
In other words, even at his best, he’s never been the type to induce weak contact. He is not the pitcher you can count on to get a double play ball. He is the opposite of Ryan Yarbrough. But for Archer’s second time around in a Rays uniform, that may be okay. For one, he won’t be tagged with being the ace. According to Roster Resource, he is listed as the No. 2 starter, but more realistically he should start the season as the No. 3 behind Glasnow and Yarbrough.
Second, Archer’s major league success has always been tied to his elite ability to miss bats, which he still very much did despite a subpar ‘19 campaign from a run prevention standpoint. His healthy 27.2% strikeout rate was good for a 74th percentile ranking. His slider was deadlier than ever, posting a career best 42.2% Whiff rate. Since the 2015 season that made him a household name, his strikeout rate of 27.8% is a top 20 number in the game.
Clearly, the Rays are betting on Archer’s upside here, since his coming off of thoracic outlet surgery is a wild card—the sample is just not as big or predictable as something more common like Tommy John surgery. As far as what we can expect, most projections have him as roughly a 2.0 fWAR assuming about 150 innings of work—a pretty solid outcome if it holds. If Archer is indeed healthy, that feels about right. If the Rays and pitching coach Kyle Snyder have some tricks up their sleeves, however, there is always the chance we could see the best Chris Archer yet.