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Ruminating on Chris Archer

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The Pirates are not expected to bring Chris Archer back. The Rangers would seem likely to be interested in him.

Texas Rangers v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Chris Archer has long been coveted by the Texas Rangers. Archer also didn’t pitch in 2020 due to surgery in June for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, and while he is expected to be healthy for 2021, Jon Heyman mentioned on Twitter yesterday that the Pirates aren’t expected to exercise their team option on him ($11 million with a $125,000 buyout) for next season.

Which got me thinking?

Archer, 32, is an interesting case. Originally a fifth round draft pick of the Cleveland Indians in 2006, Archer was one of three players dealt to the Chicago Cubs on New Year’s Eve, 2008, for Mark DeRosa. Prior to the trade he had been underwhelming in the Indians system, and wasn’t in the top 30 prospects for either the Indians or the Cubs prior to the 2009 season.

A strong year in 2009 repeating low-A put him on the map, landing him at #15 on the Cubs prospect list for BA, and then a breakout 2010, split between high-A and AA, saw him rocket up the lists, earning him the top berth on the Cubs list and the #27 spot on the BA top 100 heading into 2011 (though he wasn’t nearly as high on the other prominent rankings).

In early January, 2011, Archer went to the Tampa Bay Rays in a deal involving another Jon Daniels white whale, Matt Garza. The Rangers, you may recall, were also pursuing Garza (who the Rays originally acquired from the Minnesota Twins in the deal that sent Delmon Young to the Twins) at the time, and reportedly offered the Rays Derek Holland (who the team had tried to send to Seattle instead of Justin Smoak for Cliff Lee six months earlier), Frankie Francisco (who would be dealt to the Toronto Blue Jays two and a half weeks later for Mike Napoli), Engel Beltre, and Robinson Chirinos (who was a Cub, but who the Rangers would have acquired from the Cubs to send to the Rays in this deal).

But Archer was supposedly the guy the Rays really targeted, and they ended up sending Garza, along with Fernando Perez and Zac Rosscup, to the Cubs to get Archer, Hak-Ju Lee, Brandon Guyer, Sam Fuld, and Chirinos. The Rangers, of course, would later acquire Garza from the Cubs in 2013, as well as Chirinos from the Rays.

Archer had a meh 2011 season for the Rays in AA, dropping him to the back half (or off) top 100 lists, but was a top 50 guy after a strong AAA campaign and major league debut in 2012. Archer then put up a 3.26 ERA and 3.36 FIP over 89 starts from 2013-15 for the Rays, establishing himself as a good young starting pitcher, one who the industry seemed to think was poised to take the next step and become a legitimate top of the rotation starter.

It didn’t happen. In 2016 and 2017, his age 27 and 28 seasons, Archer went backwards, putting up a 4.02 and 4.07 ERA. In 2018, after putting up a 4.31 ERA in 17 starts, the Rays dealt him to the Pirates at the trade deadline. Pittsburgh dealt a couple of former highly regarded prospects who had disappointed — Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow — to the Rays, along with a player to be named later who ended up being Shane Baz.

To say that trade hasn’t worked out for the Pirates is an understatement. The Pirates were praised at the time for being aggressive and trying to win — they also acquired Keone Kela from the Rangers for Taylor Hearn and Sherten Apostel around this time — but they were six games out of the N.L. Central at the end of July, went 10-17 in August. The Pirates lost 93 games in 2019, and had the worst record in MLB in 2020. Archer put up a 4.30 ERA for the Pirates in 10 starts in 2018 after the trade, put up a 5.19 ERA in 23 starts in 2019, and hasn’t pitched this year.

Archer has been someone for whom the stuff and the results have not been seen to have matched up over the years. He is a high strikeout pitcher — his K rates have been from 9.83 to 11.15 per 9 each year from 2015-19 — but in 2017 and 2018, his batting average on balls in play were .325 and .338. His .331 BABIP over those two years tied with Jason Hammel for the highest among pitchers with at least 300 IP. His BABIP dropped down below .300 in 2019, but his walk and home run rates went up, resulting in a 5.02 FIP. It was also the fourth year in a row when his xFIP was at least 0.60 lower than his actual ERA.

Archer will be 32 in the 2021 season, coming off season-ending surgery. He’s a guy who was supposed to be great who hasn’t been. He also is a guy who has been linked to the Rangers, as someone the Rangers have wanted, for years. There’s shades of Matt Moore here, a former Rays pitcher who the Rangers have long pursued who has disappointed, and who is now available for cheap.

One has to wonder if the Rangers have interest in acquiring him from the Pirates on his 2021 option. Texas did that last offseason with Corey Kluber, of course, and that didn’t work, much like taking Matt Moore off the hands of the San Francisco Giants didn’t work. That said, acquiring him from the Pirates for nominal consideration, and plugging him into the rotation at $11 million for one year, could be a gamble worth taking. The Rangers do have familiarity in working with pitchers coming back from TOS (a factor in Tyson Ross signing with the Rangers, supposedly, and yes, that deal didn’t work either).

For a team that doesn’t have a ton committed in payroll for 2021, and that isn’t expected to pursue high priced players this offseason, $11 million isn’t a big commitment. The Rangers are going to add at least one veteran starting pitcher this offseason — assuming Corey Kluber doesn’t return, the Rangers have just Lance Lynn, Kyle Gibson, and Jordan Lyles in place, and Lynn could be dealt — and putting Archer in the team’s new pitcher-friendly park, with what is expected to be a quality defense behind him, could pay dividends.

More likely, the Rangers let Archer hit the market, figuring he won’t get $11 million in the open market, and, if they still have interest in him, see if they can get him on a low guarantee, high incentive deal with a 2022 option, seeking to appeal as a destination which is good for pitchers now and that has a medical staff familiar with TOS recovery.

Regardless, though, Archer is someone to keep an eye on in connection with the Rangers.