The Detroit Tigers need stronger starting pitchers. After watching Anibal Sanchez, Mike Pelfrey, and Jordan Zimmermann struggle at times in 2016, it’s clear that the Tigers could stand to add a reliable arm next season who can last later into games, easing some of the pressure on the oft-overworked Tigers bullpen. Finding an established starter who can work alongside powerhouse youngsters like Michael Fulmer and Daniel Norris would be a smart move for the Tigers, especially if they can find a player who won’t break the bank.
With rumors swirling that general manager Al Avila wants to go younger and cheaper, it seems like an ideal time to consider adding talented, fresh blood to the Tigers starting rotation. A great place to start might be Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Chris Archer. ESPN’s Buster Olney reported that Archer may be available in his latest column, noting, “Rival executives expect the Rays to trade Drew Smyly or Chris Archer, as well as closer Alex Colome, who had 37 saves last season.”
There are a few naysayers who will quickly dismiss Archer, suggesting he already peaked in his 2015 All-Star season, but there’s a lot to be said for the remaining potential of the 28-year-old.
Who is he?
Archer has been with the Rays for the duration of his five-year major league career. He has been a full-time member of their starting rotation for the last four years, and has demonstrated the kind of talent that made people believe he could be something really special. He finished third in AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2013. In his remarkable 2015 season he was an All-Star and finished fifth in the AL Cy Young consideration.
Archer’s career numbers over his tenure with the Rays are impressive, if not mind-blowing. His ERA is a healthy 3.51, with his 2013-15 numbers staying tight between 3.22 and 3.33. His career FIP is 3.48, but has been as low as 2.90 in his 2015 season, which ranked fourth in the American League.
Why should we care?
Wins aren’t the whole story, no matter what Cy Young voters seem to believe. Though Archer’s win-loss numbers are 41-51 over his career, there are other stats that should tickle the fancy of Tigers fans. For starters (no pun intended), Archer’s strikeout rate was actually better than Justin Verlander’s in 2016. Archer fanned 10.4 batters per nine innings, compared to Verlander’s 10.1. Archer also tied Chris Sale for second among AL pitchers with 233 strikeouts. Archer has been close to the 200-innings pitched mark for the last three seasons, demonstrating the kind of stamina the Tigers are sorely lacking, specifically among the younger members of the rotation.
He is currently contracted to the Rays through 2019 with a six-year, $25.5 million contract, and two team options for the 2020 and 2021 seasons. Archer will receive $19 million over the next three years, and his expected salary in 2017 will be just under $5 million. There are 54 MLB pitchers who will cost more, including Mike Pelfrey who will command an $8 million salary. Starters like Ian Kennedy ($13.5 million) or Marco Estrada ($14.5 million) cost more, with substantially worse numbers. Even players closer to Archer’s age and experience with more competitive performance numbers will cost more per year, like Cleveland’s Carlos Carrasco ($6.5 million) and White Sox starter José Quintana ($7 million). Archer’s $19 million over three seasons is higher than someone like teammate Drew Smyly or Oakland’s Sonny Gray, but still looks very appealing by contrast for the potential return.
Why should we stay away?
After a top notch start to the 2015 season, Archer struggled after the All-Star Game with his ERA peaking in September/October of that year at 5.81, while his typically hight strikeouts per nine innings dropped to 8.42, well below his average. His difficulties continued into the first half of 2016. His ERA and WHIP figures were elevated, as was his previously low walk rate. None of his stats were particularly bad, in spite of what some alarmists seem to suggest. His numbers have been consistent, and in some cases are among the best in the AL. It’s worth noting that Archer’s numbers made a dramatic about-face in the latter half of 2016, with his ERA steadily dropping back to 3.25 and his K/9 rebounding to over 10. It seems whatever difficulty Archer between 2015 and 2016, he has found his stride again.
One concern is Archer’s reliance on his slider. According to a Beyond the Box Score look at indicators of players getting Tommy John surgery, an over-reliance on sliders and fastballs is a warning sign of future injury. In 2016, Archer threw fastballs 48.5 percent of the time, and used his slider at a 40.2 percent rate. This was actually a decrease in fastball use from previous years, as he also began to use his changeup more regularly. This increased use of the changeup may be a way to counter wear and tear from his higher velocity pitches. While these numbers don’t guarantee Archer is going to need Tommy John surgery, his risk of injury is higher. The Tigers will want to do their due diligence before they potentially take on the righthander.
Archer wouldn’t come for free, either. With the time remaining on his contract and the role he plays within the Rays’ starting rotation, the Tigers would have to part with some desirable players. J.D. Martinez could potentially be a part of whatever trade was arranged with the Rays, but if Avila could add either Mike Pelfrey or Anibal Sanchez into the mix Tigers fans might consider it a bonus, though it’s wildly improbable the Rays would take either. Of course, the Rays would likely want to dip into the Tigers prospect pool, hoping to groom the next Evan Longoria or Miguel Cabrera. Odds are, the Tigers don’t have the prospects in their system to get a deal done. At a minimum they’d have to give up Matt Manning, but a more likely result would be losing the bulk of the Tigers quality minor leaguers, something the team isn’t in a position to do if they’re hoping to rebuild.
Will he end up in Detroit?
It’s not out of the question, but it is wildly unlikely, given the thin market and the high demand for starting pitchers. Archer himself seems interested in trying his luck elsewhere. In an interview on SiriusXM’s MLB Network radio show, Archer said “I think in order for us to be successful, we've got to spend more money. You look at the teams that were in contention this year and they were all around the $100-million payroll mark or more. And we're in the $70 million payroll...”
The Tigers may be looking to trim payroll, cutting back from the $200+ million they spent last season, but it seems safe to say they will still be among the top 10 spenders in 2017, far eclipsing what the Rays have been willing to shell out. Archer is expected to receive $19 million over the next three years, with an additional $500,000 owed to him if he’s traded during the time of his contract. If the Tigers were to make some interesting moves, and Archer were to live up to previous expectations, he could be a really great fit for the team, at a price tag that doesn’t strain the wallet too badly.
Plus, the last time the Tigers made a trade for a Rays starter, it worked out pretty well.