The Rays are taking a lot of gambles in reassembling their pitching staff, none bigger than in re-signing Chris Archer.
Beyond the relatively hefty financial commitment (hefty for the Rays), a $6.5 million salary that will be third highest on the team and about 10 percent of the total payroll, there is risk in what he does on the mound and in the clubhouse.
Health and performance are fair concerns. Archer is 32 now. He hasn’t pitched in a game since Aug. 20, 2019. He hasn’t pitched well over an extended period, arguably, since before the Rays traded him to Pittsburgh on July 31, 2018.
He is coming off June thoracic outlet syndrome surgery in which part of his top rib and scalene muscle were removed, a procedure from which an encouraging number of pitchers, including ex-Ray Alex Cobb, have returned but not all. And that surgery came after procedures to address hernia and left hip labrum issues.
He reportedly has looked good in throwing sessions, hitting 89-90 mph in January, and has benefited from a new physical conditioning program. He is confident he will be ready to start the season on time and take the ball every fifth day, just as he used to in reaching the 200-inning plateau three straight seasons. The Rays will be cautious in handling him, especially early, perhaps buying an extra week by pushing him to the back of the rotation and limiting his workload.
Archer has said a lot of the right things: He is committed to working with pitching coach Kyle Snyder, who was in his first year on the job when Archer was traded. He will maximize the strengths of his repertoire (four-seam fastball, slider, changeup). He won’t try changes for the sake of change, as he did in Pittsburgh, and stubbornly stick with them. And he’ll be happy in any role, which could include pitching behind an opener.
The Rays, who first pursued signing Corey Kluber and trades for Joe Musgrave and Jameson Taillon, feel good about what they’ve seen and heard from Archer. They’re banking that the one-year deal, free of options or appearance/innings incentives that could complicate decision-making, should be motivation for Archer to re-establish his standing and value around the game.
His previous work ethic and dedication to his physical conditioning when he was a Ray was extraordinary. He passed down the legacy from James Shields and David Price of putting in the time to hone his craft, one the Rays would like their young pitchers to follow, as Blake Snell did. His charitable efforts and work in the community were admirable.
But it wasn’t all good examples.
Some of Archer’s theatrics on the mound — his overt shows of emotion and other attention-getting moves — the Rays definitely could do without. His pledge last week to be “like the 23-year old Chris Archer again” sounded good.
How he fits into the clubhouse also will be interesting. Archer stepped into the spotlight — facilitated by media that relished his availability and thoughtful answers — and he certainly seemed to enjoy the attention, turning into the face of the team and the game, for a short time.
If the couple of rough years away have humbled and grounded Archer a bit, the Rays would be okay with that. They have a bit of a leadership void with Snell and Charlie Morton gone, and plenty of young pitchers to be properly impressed upon.
How that goes is also part of the dice roll.
ESPN.com’s Kiley McDaniel wrote plenty good about the Rays, rating them the top farm system and including a majors-leading nine in his top 100 prospects list. That included calling consensus No. 1 Wander Franco “the best prospect baseball has seen in at least five years,” noting his “unique combination of pedigree, tools and performance.” His other ranked Rays: Randy Arozarena, 10; Luis Patino, 21; Vidal Brujan, 26; Xavier Edwards, 58; Josh Lowe, 70; Brendan McKay, 73; Taylor Walls, 89; Shane McClanahan, 94. … Keith Law had similar praise in The Athletic, rating the Rays the top farm system, noting their prospect depth at numerous positions and sustainability.
The 40-man roster squeeze the Rays have dealt with all winter eases Wednesday when they can place sidelined pitchers Jalen Beeks, Yonny Chirinos and Colin Poche on the 60-day injured list. Free agents Rich Hill and Collin McHugh, assuming their physicals go okay, will get spots. … Former Boston teammate Brock Holt was reportedly the first to play the name game, turning Richard Hill into the pitcher’s Dick Mountain nickname. … Baseball Prospectus’ initial PECOTA projections have the Rays for 86 wins, 11 fewer than Yankees, and in a wild-card race with the Angels, Blue Jays, Indians and White Sox. Other AL division winners are the Astros (93 wins) and Twins (91). … Brett Phillips changed his number to 35 to honor a childhood Seminole friend, Nate Richardson, who was killed in a 2009 car crash. Phillips recently presented a Rays No. 35 jersey to Richardson’s mom, and posted a video of the emotional scene. … The 73 players officially invited to spring training (with at least two more coming) are the Rays’ most since 2003, Lou Piniella’s first year as manager. The team record is 76 in 1999. … The coming week should be informational with release of spring training and regular-season ticket prices and distanced seating details. Rough plans are for about 7,000 a game at Tropicana Field and 1,000-1,500 fans for games in Port Charlotte. Fans likely won’t be allowed to watch workouts due to coronavirus restrictions. Media aren’t allowed either for the first week, per a league rule. … Rays officials still are discussing a drive-through Fan Fest-type event in the Trop parking lot, though likely closer to opening day. … Arozarena tweeted a 2020 highlights video with the comment: “Hello all! Who is ready for more of this?” ... Much was made in the MLB-led reorganization of the minor leagues about improving pay, facilities and overall playing conditions for the players, including new scheduling formats (like six-game series) to minimize travel. But the new plan leaves the Rays’ Bowling Green, Ky., affiliate, which moves up to the High A level, in a tough spot: 266 miles from its closest division foe (Rome, Ga.) and roughly 400-600 from the other four. ... MLB Network’s ranking of the top 100 players seems designed to spur debate, and it has, with Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe only 53rd. Other ranked Rays are Austin Meadows, 92; Tyler Glasnow, 96; and Arozarena, 100; with the top 40 still to come. Reliever Nick Anderson would seem a candidate. ... Ryan Yarbrough and Meadows had the same answer when asked on MLB Network Radio which Ray would be most likely to lock his keys in his car: Meadows.