PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates cut ties with right-hander Chris Archer on Saturday by declining his $11 million club option for next season. Instead, they bought out his option for $250,000 and made the veteran starter a free agent.
The news first came to light in a Saturday night press release from the Major League Baseball Players Association, and the Pirates confirmed Sunday night that they declined Archer’s option after reinstating him from the 60-day injured list. It’s likely that Archer will continue his career elsewhere as he returns from surgery to address the symptoms of neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome, closing the book on one of the most infamous trades in franchise history.
“Given right now [there’s] a lot to learn still in the offseason about where the market goes and where Chris is right now in his recovery, we just didn’t feel we could commit to that level of salary at this point in the calendar for 2021,” general manager Ben Cherington said Monday morning. “Talking to Chris, I think he’s working hard and doing well. Coming to get to know Chris a little bit through the year, I really like him as a person. He’s talented, still young. He’s going to recover. I believe he’ll pitch in the big leagues -- I certainly hope he pitches well in the big leagues going forward -- but we weren’t comfortable committing at that level this early in the offseason.”
Cherington said the Pirates will “keep that door cracked” if Archer wants to return to Pittsburgh on a lesser deal next season. But Archer should be an interesting buy-low target for a bunch of teams in need of rotation help, and the veteran starter has earned the right to pick his landing spot in his first foray into free agency.
“We can all kind of speculate as to how free agency is going to evolve this offseason. The truth is, I don’t know how it’s going to evolve. We’ll have to learn,” Cherington said. “Teams and players are probably going to need some time to figure out how everyone is reacting. Not sure how quickly that’s going to move, but we’ll keep the door open certainly -- for not just Chris but others, too.”
Just before the Trade Deadline on July 31, 2018, the Pirates agreed to send Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows and a player to be named later to the Rays in exchange for the two-time All-Star Archer. The news sent a wave of excitement through the home clubhouse at PNC Park.
Chairman Bob Nutting said the move “should make us a stronger team this season and beyond.” Former team president Frank Coonelly said the Pirates' belief in their young core led them to Archer, “somebody who we believe can help push us forward this year and then help us in ’19, ’20 and ’21.” Their young players felt it was a sign that management intended to build a winning team around them.
Archer’s arrival in Pittsburgh was initially met with enthusiasm, too. He and right-hander Keone Kela, who became a free agent on Wednesday, joined a 2018 Pirates club that won 11 straight games in mid-July. Archer immediately endeared himself to fans, saying all the right things in his introductory press conference and warming up to Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow” before his first start.
The goodwill did not last long, however, as that excitement turned quickly into frustration that could linger for years after Archer’s final appearance in black and gold.
Glasnow pitched to his potential more often in Tampa Bay. Meadows turned into an All-Star in 2019. The PTBNL turned out to be Shane Baz, now the No. 86 overall prospect in baseball, per MLB Pipeline. Archer wasn’t the “upper-echelon, top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher” that former general manager Neal Huntington said he’d be the day the trade was finalized. Since the deal was announced, Pittsburgh has lost 151 of 266 games.
Archer pitched poorly in August 2018, and the Pirates were out of the postseason picture by the time he bounced back that September. Since then, he’s been injured -- with hernia surgery, right thumb inflammation, right shoulder inflammation and finally neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome -- and ineffective, recording a 4.92 ERA in 33 starts. Archer did not pitch this season after undergoing surgery in June and did not rehab with the team due to protocols put in place amid the coronavirus pandemic.
After dismissing Huntington a year ago, Nutting mentioned Glasnow, Meadows and Baz by name when discussing players who succeeded elsewhere and stressed the importance of “maximizing their performance when they’re here in Pittsburgh.” So it’s not an exaggeration to suggest that the results of the Archer trade played a part in the widespread changes the Pirates have undergone over the past 13 months.
Out went Huntington, assistant GM Kyle Stark, Coonelly, manager Clint Hurdle and pitching coach Ray Searage, among others. In came GM Ben Cherington, assistant GM Steve Sanders, president Travis Williams, manager Derek Shelton and pitching coach Oscar Marin.
Considering their place on the competitive spectrum and their focus on building a better team for the future, it’s probably more important that the Pirates continue to provide opportunities for their younger pitchers in the rotation and bullpen next year. They have plenty of candidates for their Opening Day rotation -- Jameson Taillon, Mitch Keller, Joe Musgrove, Steven Brault, Chad Kuhl, JT Brubaker, Trevor Williams and Cody Ponce -- along with upper-level prospects, like Cody Bolton, on the way.
Archer, 32, is expected to be ready for Spring Training 2021. Even if he isn’t an ace, he could be a valuable pitcher by taking the ball and posting high strikeout rates with his fastball and wipeout slider. He posted on Instagram on Oct. 6 that his “arm speed is back!” Perhaps better health will lead to better results on the mound next season.
There aren’t many examples of starting pitchers coming back strong from the TOS procedure he underwent, with Matt Harvey (6.09 ERA since 2017) being the most notable case in the other direction. Archer hasn’t pitched in a regular-season game since Aug. 20, 2019. And he’s five years removed from his last season with more than 2.0 Wins Above Replacement.
That was too much uncertainty for the Pirates to guarantee Archer $11 million, and we’ve already seen some teams -- like the Indians, who placed Brad Hand on outright waivers on Thursday -- shy away from financial commitments that wouldn’t have seemed exorbitant in past years.