Starting pitching is the number one priority for David Stearns and the Milwaukee Brewers this winter. After the devastating injury to Jimmy Nelson, the Brewers will enter 2018 with a notable vacancy at the top of their rotation and only two proven big league starters in the fold: Chase Anderson and Zach Davies. While Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta (who has already been speculatively linked to Milwaukee) are both available in free agency, each will turn 32 years old in 2018 and figure to command sizable multiyear commitments in excess of $100 mil. Turning our eyes to the trade market, however, there may be a younger, arguably more talented option available who is signed to a much more team-friendly contract: Chris Archer of the Tampa Bay Rays.
In a radio appearance a few days ago, Rays’ GM Erik Neander praised the 29 year old Archer as “exactly the type of player that we need to have...to have a chance to win” and added Archer is the kind of player that Tampa Bay needs to build around. Since then, though, Neander has admitted to at least considering the possibility of a scorched earth rebuild similar to the Cubs and Astros, and yesterday Jon Heyman reported that the Rays are indeed listening to inquiries on Archer and other star players. None of this is to say that Tampa Bay will definitely be dealing their ace this winter, but if he’s truly available then he could very well become the most coveted asset among contenders during the offseason.
Chris Archer began his career back in 2006 as the 5th-round pick of the Cleveland Indians, inking for a $161,000 bonus as a prep player. He was traded twice as a minor leaguer, first on New Year’s Eve 2008 from Cleveland to Chicago in the Mark DeRosa deal, then again in during the 2010-11 offseason from Chicago to Tampa Bay as a part of the package for Matt Garza. It was around that time that analysts began to pay attention to Archer as a prospect; he was considered a top-100 talent by Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America prior to the 2011 season and made his MLB debut as a September call-up the next year in 2012.
Archer came to the big leagues for good in June of 2013 and finished 3rd in AL Rookie of the Year voting after making 23 starts and posting a 3.22 ERA across 128.2 innings with 7.1 K/9 and 2.7 BB/9. Tampa Bay then offered Archer the opportunity to lock in his first fortune before he even reached a full season of MLB service, and in April of 2014 he agreed to a 6-year extension that guaranteed him $25.5 mil along with two additional club options for $9 mil and $11 mil that could keep him under contractual control through the 2021 season. When the deal was signed, it was the largest contract ever given to a player in the 0-1 service class.
Archer’s continued development since then has made his contract one of the great bargains in all of baseball. He’s crossed the 190+ inning threshold in each of the last four seasons, including three in a row of 200+ innings. His finest season came in 2015, when with the help of a dramatic increase in strikeout rate, Archer authored a sterling 3.23 ERA while logging 212.0 innings across 34 starts. He struck out 252 batters against 67 walks, and both a DRA- of 60 and FIP- of 73 put Archer among the elite pitchers in all of baseball. He finished 5th in Cy Young voting that season.
In the two years since then Archer has posted ERAs of 4.02 and 4.07, and in 2016 he lead the MLB with 19 losing decision. Digging a bit deeper, however, it becomes clear that Archer has remained among the top pitchers in the game even though the run prevention totals may not have reflected it. Archer worked 402.1 innings combined over the last two seasons, and posted a DRA- of 70 - or, 30% better than league average - in both years. Deserved Run Average estimates ERA through mixed modeling by stripping away things like luck, the defense behind a pitcher, and the quality of catcher framing, and using Baseball Prospectus’ WARP calculation based on DRA, Archer has been worth 10.1 wins above replacement since 2016 (and 21.7 wins in 967.0 innings for his career). By WARP he was the league’s 13th-most valuable pitcher in 2016 and 11th-most in 2017, this past season finishing ahead of notable hurlers like Dallas Keuchel, Marcus Stroman, Sonny Gray, Jose Quintana, and even Clayton Kershaw.
Archer gets batters out by relying primarily on two high-octane pitches: a blazing fastball and devastating slider. His average fastball velocity of 95.8 MPH in 2017 (per Pitch Info) ranked as the 8th-hardest among qualified pitchers. Archer’s slider came in at 89.1 MPH last season and opponents could muster only a .212 average against the pitch that he threw 43.8% of the time. 182 of his 249 strikeouts in 2017 came on his slide-piece. He also mixes in a changeup sparingly, with a mere 8.6% usage rate in 2017.
Though he only really utilizes the two pitches, Archer does not have a pronounced platoon split; he’s held right-handed hitters to a .227 average during his career, while lefties are only slightly higher at .237. He’s posted whiff rates in excess of 12% in each of the last three years, including a career-best 13.4% swinging strike rate in 2017. His control was considered problematic during his days as a farmhand, but he’s settled in to post better-than-average walk rates in each of the past three campaigns.
The most common concern cited regarding Archer has been his propensity to give up the long ball over the last two seasons. However that may be more due to a change in the game than anything that’s specifically Archer’s doing. While it is true that he’s given up 1.3 HR/9 over the past two seasons, the league-average home run rate has skyrocketed in that time as well - all the way from 1.0 HR/9 in 2015 to 1.2 HR/9 in 2016 to 1.3 HR/9 in 2017. Stark changes like that lend credence to the juiced ball theories that are floating around out there. Looking beyond the dingers, Archer registered a stellar 10.8 K/9 against 2.8 BB/9 combined during 2016-17.
So what the Rays possess in Archer is a durable, frontline-caliber starting pitcher who is on the right side of 30 and can be controlled for the next four seasons at the meager sum of $33.75 mil. Naturally, with an asset like this Tampa Bay would be justified in seeking a sizable return. Using some of the recent pitching deals as an outline, a package for the Milwaukee Brewers to acquire Chris Archer would start with top prospect Lewis Brinson or perhaps a young big leaguer like Orlando Arcia or Domingo Santana. It would certainly have to include one of the org’s two highest rated pitching prospects - currently Corbin Burnes or Brandon Woodruff - and probably two or three more notable minor leaguers, as well. Maybe a position player like Mauricio Dubon, Isan Diaz, or Lucas Erceg, along with a promising young arm along the lines of a Cody Ponce, Josh Pennington, or Carlos Herrera. In reality, a trade may require even more than what’s been suggested.
The cost to bring Archer in would be steep, yes, but if he’s made available he instantly becomes the top pitching upgrade of the offseason. The Brewers have an embarrassment of riches in the form of young talent both at the major league level and throughout the minor leagues, so putting together a package for Chris Archer is a blow that the club could certainly afford. If David Stearns goes out and gets the ace that his team desperately needs this winter, it will be interesting to see which direction he feels more comfortable going - investing a big money contract into an older free agent like Arrieta or Darvish, or parting with significant prospect capital to bring in a younger, more affordable arm like Archer.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus