In an offseason that’ll probably be defined by the volume and notoriety of declined options and non-tendered contracts, the Pirates decision to buy out starter Chris Archer doesn’t really stand out.
Archer, 32, missed the entire 2020 season after surgery to relieve symptoms of thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS), and that was after an incredibly disappointing 2019 campaign, during which he made just 23 starts (119.2 IP) with a 5.19 ERA.
In other words, while the Pirates may be one of the most frugal team in MLB, all 30 clubs would decline that $11 million option for 2021 right now (and some teams might’ve done it even without pandemic-crunched budgets).
In any case, Chris Archer is now a free agent, and considering the Cubs needs in the rotation and longstanding bullseye on their former righty, it’s worth addressing.
The Legend of Chris Archer
Chris Archer, a Chicago Cubs prospect many moons ago, is a two-time All-Star, a Rookie of the Year finalist, and a top-5 finisher for the 2015 AL Cy Young award. So to say he was never quite a star wouldn’t be fair. His career has been plenty impressive and he was once one of the most popular and dominant pitchers in MLB. But Archer was probably never quite as good as the legend because so much of that legend was built on his perceived value vis-à-vis his contract.
In 2014, Archer signed a six-year extension with the Rays worth just $25.5M guaranteed plus a couple of options for 2020 ($9M) and 2021 ($11M). And when a guy has a 2015 season like Archer did (3.23 ERA, 2.90 FIP; 5.1 WAR) immediately after a deal that affordable, well … his contract becomes the prized asset of MLB. And, thus, the player’s legend grows with it, even if the performance wanes.
There is another thing, though, that’s always hung over Archer’s story: Too much hard contact:
Pretty much since his debut, Archer has allowed a lot more hard contact than the league average pitcher (to say nothing of the guys at the top of the board). In fact, Archer’s 34.5% hard-hit rate since 2013 is the third highest mark in baseball among starters with at least 1,000 IP. And his 89.7 average exit velocity (starting in 2015 when Statcast data became available) is the single highest mark in MLB among that same group of starters.
Obviously contact quality isn’t everything – Archer, himself, has enjoyed plenty of success without it – but it is certainly one of those hidden issues that teams can blissfully ignore until it’s a massive problem. And, well.
The Trends of Chris Archer
There’s also the fact that Archer has been trending down almost across the board since his fantastic 2015 season, with ERAs of 4.02, 4.07, 4.31, and 5.19 from 2016-2019. And, sure, he made 33+ starts with more than 200 innings pitched in each of those first two seasons, but his durability took a hit in 2018 (27 starts, 148.1 IP), 2019 (23 starts, 119.2 IP), and, of course, 2020, when he did not throw a single pitch.
On the bright side, his always excellent strikeout rate (career 25.9%) has pretty much held at an impressively above-average rate through his time in Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh, though his walk rate did trickle up to double-digits for the first time in 2019 (10.5%).
And as far as velocity goes, Archer hasn’t dropped off a ton so far, but his 94.1 MPH average fastball velocity in 2019 was the lowest of his career (Avg. 94.8 MPH) and it’s probably a little worse than that when you consider that he had been over 95 MPH in 2013, 2015, and 2017. And of course, this drop-off in velocity was when he was a 30-year-old starter in 2019, not a 32-year-old starter in 2021, with over a year off the mound due to a serious surgery. Speaking of which.
Thoracic Outlet Syndrome
Although TOS doesn’t quite get as much attention (or come with as much frequency) as Tommy John surgery, it’s still a pretty significant injury. Some pitchers have come out the other side and have gone onto enjoy productive careers (Mike Foltynewicz got surgery in 2015, but had some success since then), and there have been others who’ve at least continued to pitch a lot (Alex Cobb, Clayton Richard). But there have also been some high profile misses like Matt Harvey, Phil Hughes, and Tyson Ross.
No, the surgery didn’t mean the end of most careers, but you can explore the (2018) table for yourself: the successes are muted and the failures are plenty. Most pitchers pitch fewer, less productive innings after receiving the surgery (which really isn’t all that crazy of a conclusion).
So perhaps you can hope that the downward trend for Archer with the Pirates was due to TOS, but even if that’s true, that doesn’t necessarily mean surgery is going to fix any of his problems.
Should the Cubs Target Chris Archer?
Well, funny enough, Archer is the 50th free agent listed on MLB Trade Rumors Top-50 free agent rankings and the ONLY player pegged to the Chicago Cubs this offseason (1 year, $4 million). Seeing as the Cubs have a wide-open rotation and a history with Archer, this isn’t particularly surprising. I do think the Cubs can probably get Archer for less than that projected contract, though.
In this market, with his history, I can’t see Archer getting much more than a couple million for 2021, and he may even need to give up a cheap option year in 2022 to even get that.
But at that cost … with this rotation? Yeah, why wouldn’t I want the Cubs to take a low-risk flyer on a formerly dominant, still just 32-year-old pitcher? This is still a guy who has always struck out a ton of batters and has had plenty of success in the past. If his surgery was successful and the Cubs can help him limit some of the hard contact (which has actually been a speciality of theirs in the past), then it’s like MLB Trade Rumors says: “Even at age 32, Archer is a starting pitcher teams can dream on a little bit if his recovery goes well.”
Also, what the heck – maybe he comes back without the length to be a starter, but turns into a really interesting swing guy in the bullpen? Just thinking out loud …