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Mariners 2021 Free Agent Target: Chris Archer

He’s never technically been here but still: Bring. Him. Home.

Cincinnati Reds v Pittsburgh Pirates
how can you not love this man?!
Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The postseason hasn’t even made it to the World Series yet but for the Mariners, once again sitting at home during October, the time is nigh to start retooling for next year. To that end, we’ll be examining—weekly at the very least, ideally bi-weekly on Tuesdays and Thursdays—various free agent targets the Mariners could pursue this off-season. Technically this series started way back in early August, when staff writer Tim got a bee in his bonnet about how the Mariners should sign D.J. LeMahieu this off-season, to which we all say: bless his heart. We support having Big Dreams here at LL. For the first installment of this series, though, I’m going to set my sights a little lower and suggest the Mariners sign Chris Archer.

To clarify: Archer is not an unrestricted free agent; the Pirates will either have to pay him a $250K buyout or pick up his $11M option. However, with a deep rotation in Pittsburgh, a team that’s a few years away from contending, and the famously miserly Bob Nutting holding the purse strings, it seems like a fait accompli Archer will be searching for a new home this off-season. That home should be in Seattle.

First, the drawbacks: Archer is coming off Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TOS) surgery, which isn’t as clear-cut a recovery path as TJ surgery, for example. TOS is a repetitive use injury caused by the compression of the nerves/blood vessels in the upper back, often affecting a patient’s neck. Per Jay Jaffe writing at FanGraphs in 2018, pitchers returning from TOS don’t have a favorable outlook; however, a study in the Annals of Vascular Surgery came to a different conclusion, in a 14-year-study of 13 pitchers who underwent the surgery between 2001 and 2014. As for other factors, on the negative side of the spectrum, Archer is 32, with plenty of big-league mileage on his arm; on the positive side, he has had only minor injuries before 2019, when he spent time on the IL with right shoulder inflammation that likely masked the TOS diagnosis he received in 2020.

Archer’s unfortunate 2019 numbers can also be attributed to the onset of his TOS, although his numbers have been declining for the past few years. But even if he was no longer his dominant, All-Star self of 2015-2017, in 2018 Archer still ate up innings, controlled the zone, and limited damage. His fastball might have lost a few ticks from 2018 to 2019, but it still averaged around 94 mph, and he complements the fastball with a rich arsenal of pitches that seem ripe for Seattle’s pitch-optimization team to get their hands on, including a putaway slider and a changeup that produces a high number of whiffs. Here’s Archer in 2019 absolutely crushing a Triple-A team...oh no, I’m being informed that’s actually the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

Specifically, Seattle could help Archer shed the sinker he was forced into under Pittsburgh’s Sinkers-R-Us pitching philosophy. Here’s how I imagine that conversation going:
Max Weiner or someone: Hey Chris, we’re gonna have you not throw that sinker anymore, K?.
Archer: [does cartwheels out of clubhouse].

In fact, if there is an argument for Archer to remain with Pittsburgh, it’s the fact that he thinks highly of new pitching coach Oscar Marin, whose background is in biomechanics, and who isn’t quite as sinker-obsessed as his predecessor and has already made some significant upgrades among the Pirates pitchers. However, Seattle, which is ahead of Pittsburgh in pitching development by at least a couple of years, can make as compelling or better a pitch to appeal to the analytic Archer.

Seattle has a couple other things going for it, as well; in a refreshing change of pace, Archer has expressed that Seattle is one of his favorite road stops to spend time in, and he particularly enjoys the rich literary culture of the city. The civic-minded Archer, who often posts on Twitter about social justice issues, would also find himself in a clubhouse and larger city culture that supports those ideals and encourages self-expression among players. Specifically, he would lend not only veteran leadership to Seattle’s young pitching staff, but also bring his experience as a person of color navigating MLB to the team with the highest number of Black players in the league, a role that is currently being filled by Dee Gordon, who very well might not be with the team in 2021. The Seattle Mariners aren’t always an easy sell for free agents, but from the outside, it looks like there is plenty that could intrigue Archer.

As for Seattle, Archer—assuming he is healthy—would provide stability to a rotation that is largely young and inexperienced, mercurial, or both. There’s an element of risk in signing him given the track record of pitchers who have had TOS surgery, but it’s a risk Seattle could more easily absorb than a club with win-now pressure or who lacked enough depth to replace him if he’s unable to make all his scheduled starts. Seattle’s planned six-man rotation could also be a boon for a player returning from a severe injury by decreasing his load. And while the risk of the 32-year-old not bouncing back from TOS is considerable, it could also reduce Archer’s price tag into something the bafflingly tight-fisted Mariners would be willing to pay.

John wrote an argument for the Mariners trading for Archer prior to the 2020 season that obviously didn’t predict Archer’s TOS surgery (or any of the other horrors of 2020), but many of the points he made there are still good, except the Mariners wouldn’t have to give up anything other than cold hard cash in order to acquire him. While it’s unlikely a post-injury Archer will blossom into Justin Verlander 2.0, whether he wants to do a one-year value-rebound stint with Seattle or just hang out for the next few years helping to bring up Seattle’s stable of young pitchers, it seems like this could be a mutually beneficial arrangement. We’ve been writing “Chris Archer to Seattle PLEASE” articles for years; this seems like finally the year those dreadlocked dreams could come true.