PORT CHARLOTTE — It’s understandable that some days Chris Archer doesn’t know which role he is playing.
Is he the new guy rejoining his old squad? Or the old guy with a new crew?
“All in all, I kind of feel like the rookie and the vet,” Archer said. “That’s a Drake lyric” — referencing the rapper, not the Rays reliever with the first name Oliver — “but I really feel like there’s a little bit of both in there.”
The surroundings are certainly familiar, as Archer spent eight years going to spring training at the Rays complex before being dealt to the Pirates in July 2018. Having signed a one-year, $6.5 million deal last month to return, Archer is set up in the same locker he first had and wearing his old No. 22.
Many of the core philosophies and operating plans remain in place, and much of the front office and coaching staff are still around, although some are in different roles.
“The familiarity, the comfort is amazing,” Archer said.
But the players around him have changed. Many Archer played with have moved on. Young players have become leaders and stars. There are new up-and-comers, including pitcher Shane Baz, whom the Rays got from Pittsburgh for Archer, along with top returning starter Tyler Glasnow and 2019 All-Star outfielder Austin Meadows.
And while Archer was gone, the Rays did a lot of winning, finishing 2018 strong, then making the playoffs the past two years, including the World Series in 2020.
“It’s kind of a cool dynamic,” Archer said. “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.”
Archer, 32, has much to share, with interesting experiences in baseball and life, a natural curiosity and an engaging personality.
As much as he enjoyed his time with the Rays and living much of the year in St. Petersburg (which he reinforced with a recent tweet listing the food places he missed), he made a hard break after the 2019 season, cutting some ties and moving his offseason base to Southern California.
“I just wanted to change it up after I got traded,” Archer said. “I had been in St. Pete for a long time, I had developed a lot of really good relationships, a lot of really good resources. But I found that a lot of my resources were through the team. I was doing a lot of my strength training, all my throwing, a lot of my (physical therapy)/rehab stuff was at the Trop in the offseason. It was convenient. Then I realized that I didn’t have as many of those any more.”
He rented a place in the Malibu area, enjoying the topographical juxtaposition of the beaches and mountains. Among his new resources was Zach Ray, who ran the Live Athletics physical therapy and performance center where Archer decided to train.
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So when Archer had thoracic outlet surgery in June 2020 that ended his final season with the Pirates (who declined an $11 million option for 2021), he went west to rehab with Gray.
He spent four-five hours a day working intensely at the clinic, sharing tears and joy as the rehab progressed, and a little time outside appreciating nature. But, given coronavirus concerns, most afternoons and evenings were spent in a hotel room (albeit a luxury Four Seasons accommodation).
Archer’s primary way to pass the time?
“Watching so much baseball,” he said, “and missing the hell out of the game.”
Archer said he watched every pitch of all of the Pirates’ games and many of the Rays’. He would tune in to see certain star-quality pitchers. He said he felt like he a learned a lot, seeing the game from a different perspective. He was reminded of what he missed and what he loved.
“Last year was tough,” Archer said. “I think the reason why I have so much gratitude and how I’ve matured is because I had to sit out.”
Returning in a familiar setting helped. He has enjoyed rekindling old relationships, such as with shortstop Willy Adames and pitcher Brent Honeywell. He also has met some of the players and staff who are new since he left, eager to start “collabing” with Justin S’ua, head of the team’s mental-performance program, and getting with the analytics and biomechanist staffs. His first outing might come this weekend.
“It kind of feels old but new at the same time,” Archer said. “I knew what I was getting myself into. But there are some new things that have been advanced that I really appreciate. I’m more open-minded myself, so I love everything that’s going on here.”