Archer fitting in with old, new teammates

February 21st, 2021

Four days into Spring Training as a new arrival on his old team,  channeled rapper Drake to describe what it’s like to be back in Rays camp.

“I kind of feel like the rookie and the vet,” Archer said Sunday afternoon. “I feel like there’s a little bit of both in there.”

The rookie is in awe of what his former, and current, teammates have accomplished since he was traded to the Pirates on July 31, 2018. Some players who were prospects when he left are now established big leaguers with more postseason experience than he can claim. The front office has grown, the coaching staff has gained experience and the farm system is overflowing with talent. Brent Honeywell Jr. even jokingly called him “the new guy.”

Archer was assigned a familiar corner locker at Tropicana Field and he got his No. 22 jersey back from prospect Vidal Bruján. Archer knows the way to the club’s spring home without needing directions and he knows most everyone around the complex without needing introductions. He recognizes his spot in the home clubhouse at Charlotte Sports Park as the one he had a decade ago, when he spent the spring next to David Price.

Evident in both sides of Archer, now 32, is a sense of newfound appreciation for what he has with the Rays.

“My gratitude obviously comes from being healthy, and being grateful for health, but also just the opportunity to do what we do,” Archer said during a Zoom call from Port Charlotte, Fla. “I'm so happy, excited and grateful -- all those words.”

And it’s easier to understand those words when you consider what last season was like for Archer.

While baseball was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic last summer, Archer underwent surgery to relieve symptoms of neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS). With limited space in their player pool and no expectation that he’d pitch last season, the Pirates left Archer to rehab on his own.

He did so in California, where he spent the 2019-20 offseason, with Zach Ray, the founder and president of the Live Athletics physical therapy and performance center in Westlake Village, Calif. Living alone in a hotel for months, Archer got outside when he could, developing a greater appreciation for nature and taking advantage of the nearby beaches and mountains. Otherwise, his days consisted of one-on-one physical therapy sessions for four to five hours, followed by even more time watching baseball.

Archer said he tuned in for every pitch of every Pirates game. He caught a lot of Rays games. He studied pitchers like Yu Darvish, Trevor Bauer and Walker Buehler, and he flipped on late games with the Padres or Giants.

“Watching so much baseball and missing the hell out of the game,” Archer said. “Each day that went by, and as my health got better, I continued to get hungrier and hungrier. So I'm sitting there learning, but I'm also eager because I'm like, ‘Damn, I really miss the camaraderie.’”

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Being so far removed from baseball, Archer said he leaned heavily on Ray and his family for support, especially when he was diagnosed with COVID-19 in August. Archer said his case wasn’t that severe, with flu-like symptoms more than anything else, but being isolated in a hotel room was trying. His mom called three or four times a day, worried he might develop related conditions like myocarditis, the heart inflammation that Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez developed after his bout with the coronavirus.

“There were tears of sadness and tears of joy, tears of frustration and tears of happiness,” Archer said. “Especially toward the end of the offseason, whenever I was throwing bullpens again and playing catch freely, and throwing 150-180 feet with no issues and getting off the mound and executing pitches, there was a lot of joy at the end.”

With a clean bill of health, Archer packed on a little more muscle before signing a one-year, $6.5 million deal with the Rays and reporting to Spring Training. He said he came to camp weighing 202 pounds, up from his usual 195-196. Adding strength -- “a couple good pounds,” he said -- was part of his rehab, and he expects to drop some of that weight as he picks up his conditioning work.

Archer said he’s felt good in bullpen sessions, no longer having to worry about manipulating his body strictly to avoid soreness or injury. He’s a full participant in Tampa Bay's workouts for pitchers and catchers, and he’s planning to make his first Grapefruit League start during the first week of March.

“We’re all very excited for Arch,” manager Kevin Cash said. “He seems to be in a really good spot physically, mentally. He's always in a pretty good spot mentally -- keeps it positive. He's a welcome guy that, you know, he's got that infectious personality that I think can really be a benefit to a group of players that are a lot like him, that like to come to the ballpark to compete and play.”

And it’s obvious that Archer is glad to be back, whether it’s coming from the rookie or the vet -- or both.

“It's a cool dynamic I'm kind of seeing. There's some younger guys who have some admiration for me, but I have a lot of admiration for what these guys have done these last two years. So it's a really nice balance,” he said. “I was talking to Willy [Adames] yesterday. I'm like, ‘Dude, I knew you when you were 20 years old. You're 25 now. You're not the kid. You're the adult.’ So it's just cool to see that, and it's a lot of mutual respect for all parties here.”