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The Mariners should make Chris Archer their Justin Verlander

Stepping up from the step-back will require a high-profile success.

Pittsburgh Pirates v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Yesterday, the Pirates picked up their team option on RHP Chris Archer for the 2020 season. It was a no-brainer, which is fortunate considering the Pirates are currently without a general manager or head coach. The 31-year-old will be paid $8.25 million for 2020 before facing a final team option in 2021 at $11 million. Pittsburgh’s trade for Archer has played out as one of the worst in modern memory, with two of the three players they dealt—Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows—powering the Rays to a surprisingly feisty playoff showing, while the third—Shane Baz—shone in the Arizona Fall League. Archer, meanwhile, had a middling second half of 2018 before a disastrous 2019 that featured career-highs in ERA, FIP, DRA, HR/FB%, and BB%, and career-lows in innings pitched and GB%. He missed two weeks in early May with thumb inflammation, got suspended for playing a part in the season-long Reds-Pirates beef, and spent the final month and a half of the season on the injured list with shoulder inflammation to boot.

Archer’s decline was just a piece of the Pirates’ disastrous 2019, but it was emblematic of the issues the organization has had over the past few seasons. A year and a half removed from his acquisition, the front office who brought him in is gone, as are the manager and pitching coach. The next direction for the Pirates is unclear, but their owner seems dead-set on not spending more money on the roster, leaving them with little hope of a rapid turnaround. The team has already been rumored to be shopping their other most established player, OF Starling Marte, and at a minimum a version of a “step-back” seems impending in Pittsburgh. That expectation is one of a few educated guesses that this article operates on, the others being that Archer’s season-ending shoulder inflammation does not seem to threaten his 2020 health, and that the Pirates view Archer’s trade value as relatively comparable to my suggestions. Taking those assumptions into account, I believe Archer is an ideal trade target for the Mariners this offseason.

The Pitch

Pirates receive: LHP Anthony Misiewicz, RHP Matt Festa, and ONE (1) of OF Mallex Smith or OF Jake Fraley

Mariners receive: RHP Chris Archer

The case here based on a few ideas.

  1. Seattle can provide a short (and potentially longer) term home for a high-profile pitcher who can at minimum eat innings and at best provide a notable player development success (and role model) at the MLB level.
  2. The Pirates will not be a competitive team for at least the next two years and as such would not be in a position on the win curve to benefit from Archer’s production.
  3. Pittsburgh’s longstanding policy of placing significant value on cheaper options will make a trio of cost-controlled, immediately useful but long-term valuable players appealing.

Why Seattle Should

Acquiring Archer satisfies the immediate need for innings in the 2020 season. Though he was involved in a few fracases this year with the toxic Pirates, he has a positive reputation around the league. He’s explicitly mentioned an affinity for the city of Seattle in the past and even took time to visit kids at the Rainier Vista Boys & Girls Club during previous trips to the Pacific Northwest. Having a successful ace who is also engaged on on board with the Mariners’ player development can also only help the team’s efforts to develop their current young group of starters like Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn, and Logan Gilbert. If Seattle can successfully help Archer return to his ace-like form, they will not only have a far more compelling case at emerging from their “step-back” on their own stated timeline, but they will have emulated a vital component of the Houston Astros’ success.

Despite their shocking collapse in the World Series against the Nationals, the Astros remain the MLB’s premier juggernaut until proven otherwise. They did so thanks to years of intentional self-sabotage, yes, but turning their tank into a title contender required a total overhaul of their player development staff and philosophy. They have gotten the most from many of their top picks and overcome their high-profile flops by developing impact players out of unheralded names. It’s possible they could have gotten to the World Series without Justin Verlander in 2017 and 2019, but his addition was an obvious boon, and not only bolstered their roster but their credibility.

When Gerrit Cole joined Houston before the 2018 season, Justin Verlander was part of the group to welcome him, lending his credibility to the voices of the front office, and convincing the former No. 1 overall pick to put his trust in Houston’s collection of analysts. The result was one of the most dominant two-year stretches by a pitcher this millennium, and a complete transformation from an enigmatic talent to a fully realized behemoth. It’s one thing to develop players who have known no other organization but your own, but quite something else to see an established star put their weight behind the philosophy of the coaching staff and encourage the buy-in of young players and new arrivals.

In terms of cost, the deal would not gut the Mariners’ rebuilding efforts. Anthony Misiewicz survived in the Pacific Coast League this year, which is a staggering achievement, and though he’s Rule-5 eligible this year, he’d be fully at Pittsburgh’s behest for up to the next six years, profiling as an MLB ready No. 5 starter or bullpen arm for an organization with multiple important pitchers set to miss the 2020 season or be coming fresh off injury. Matt Festa took a disappointing step back in 2020 but excelled in AAA and remains a promising bullpen piece, though I would consider most of the high-minors relievers not named Sam Delaplane interchangeable in this slot.

The most notable piece is the outfielder, which will likely be an Opening Day starter in 2020 for Pittsburgh. If the Pirates are more interested in a big league track record and a more imminent competition window, Mallex Smith makes the most sense. Should they see themselves as a more distant project, Jake Fraley would be the more pertinent acquisition, though both do expect at least one of Starling Marte and/or Gregory Polanco to be moved this winter. Smith will have three years on his contract remaining, all in arbitration, while Fraley should have all six cost-controlled seasons.

If Fraley blossoms further as a late-bloomer, or Smith rebounds to his 2018 self consistently, this deal could easily sting Seattle, particularly if Archer is unable to rebound. It will leave the 2020 M’s with a likely outfield of the un-dealt of Smith/Fraley, Braden Bishop, and Mitch Haniger, which is unproven to say the least. Moreover, the Mariners will only have two years to work with Archer, his age 31-32 seasons, in which time they will be focused on helping him rebound into a player worth extending a la Verlander and/or trading to a playoff contender at a premium before or during 2021. If the price I’ve outlined is what Pittsburgh is comfortable with I think it’s a bet on themselves Seattle should make.

The tricky thing is determining what exactly teams think Chris Archer is. He’s two years removed from a four year stretch of being one of the league’s better—though never best— starters. In 2018 he missed time with an oblique strain but his peripherals suggested he’d been merely unlucky. He turned 31 a month ago, putting him on the worrying end of the aging spectrum for pitchers, yet even with a downturn his velocity is still above-average for starters, and in good health he could plausibly regain that tick.

Baseball Savant

Thanks to the work of other eagle-eyed observers, I don’t need to take 500 words to explain what one of the key issues has been for Archer since joining the Pirates. That little orange line you see disappear in 2014 and sneak back into the picture in 2018 is his sinker. Famously, Pirates long-time pitching coach Ray Searage has introduced or tweaked the pitch for his staff to unlock unexpected improvements. Unfortunately, between the baseball and changes in hitting approaches, sinking fastballs have gone from secret weapons to cannon fodder in the past few years. As Ben Clemens of FanGraphs wrote earlier this season, while sinkers aren’t pitches to be written off entirely, they are, on the whole, getting worse results than four-seamers because of the ease of producing a meatball when thrown poorly. That exact issue is one of the major issues that has scuttled Chris Archer since he joined the Good Bad Ship Pirates, as Tony Wolfe of FanGraphs helpfully detailed in June:

The sinker isn’t Archer’s only problematic pitch, but it is his newest one. His four-seamer has resulted in a .380 wOBA this season, which is obviously suboptimal, but it’s also pretty much in line with the .372 wOBA it resulted in during the 2017 season, when he was a 4.5 WAR pitcher. And his slider — easily his best pitch throughout his career — has held up pretty well, holding opposing hitters to a .292 wOBA and generating more whiffs than at any point in his career. Archer can succeed with one bad fastball, even when he’s throwing it nearly half the time the way he did two years ago. It’s adding a second, even worse fastball to the mix that has seemed to unravel his game.

Those numbers only got more stark through the season’s end:

Four-seam: .339 wOBA (837 pitches)
Slider: .305 wOBA (745 pitches)
Changeup: .300 wOBA (253 pitches)
Sinker: .511 wOBA (219 pitches)
Curve: .399 wOBA (44 pitches)

Archer threw his sinker just 10.4% of the time, and yet it resulted in a quarter of the home runs he allowed, consistently was located out of the zone, and only drew swings and misses 10.6% of the time. It was malpractice for the Pirates catchers to keep putting one finger down without a written understanding that it could only mean four-seamer. Longtime Félix Hernández tinkerers will recall a similar issue over the past few seasons, with The King holding tight to his sinker even as it became an ever-tastier treat for hitters. Simply ditching the sinker and upping his slider/four-seam usage may not constitute the entirety of “The Fix” for Archer, but it’s an easy step one.

Why Pittsburgh Should

The Pirates are stuck in the middle. More accurately, they’re stuck below the middle, and in a winnable NL Central they’ve found that things just don’t line up. In Archer, Joe Musgrove, Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams, and Mitch Keller, they had one of the more interesting rotations of 2019. But a year later, Archer’s been hurt, Williams regressed, Musgrove made a career-high in starts but still averaged under 5.1 innings per outing, and Taillon went under the Tommy John knife for the second time and will miss all of 2020. It would take far more than a few paragraphs to outline the gap between the Pirates and contention, but suffice to say without significant financial infusion the organization is years from a return to being a divisional threat.

The club’s return to contention would be just as aided by cultivating a return to form for Archer as Seattle would, but having played a significant role in his downturn, it’s tough to think Archer would trust the organization with a new direction. Pittsburgh’s farm system has a few promising names, but most will be arriving in the next year or two to form the base of a contender, not the finishing touches. Their rotation could sustain losing Archer while still building to the future, with Musgrove, Williams, Keller, and Steven Brault as the current likely lineup. Misiewicz would fit in well to help work innings in the No. 5 starter role, joining other AAA depth like snake-bitten JT Brubaker, D&D villain Dario Agrazal, and Tommy John recoverer Chad Kuhl. There will be innings needing to be spread around, but most or all can be thrown by potentially intriguing options in 2020 and beyond.

In the short and long term, adding Fraley or Smith would do wonders in improving the club defensively as well, with Josh Bell and Bryan Reynolds receiving speedy potential relief in the outfield, or at least providing a capable substitution for Starling Marte in center. In adding Smith/Fraley, Misiewicz, and Festa, Pittsburgh cuts costs and gives themselves a trio of players who can contribute positively for several years ahead. Perhaps most of all, it gives Pittsburgh the chance to begin their next phase without a 6’2, sinker-chucking reminder of the most grievous mistake of the previous era on the mound every five days.

The reason I’m writing this article is that I believe Seattle can get more out of Archer than he’s shown in the past couple seasons. My case for them may ring hollow as a result, and I fully understand that. My suppositions are based around the way the Pirates have operated in the past decade, and there is a very real chance Archer, like many workhorse starters we’ve seen, has hit a wall in his early 30s; Félix and the immortal Yovani Gallardo come to mind. Should the Pirates view Archer as an ace still, there’s little justification for Seattle to move their more high-profile prospects, and they can simply walk away. This is a deal with obvious flop risk, but it’s a risk Seattle can bear, and if the price is right, the reward—an ace in the short-term who could potentially be extended or traded, as well as an immense boost in buy-in credibility for the player development team—is one worth swinging big for.