At 52-50, the Tampa Bay Rays are far better this season than pretty much everyone except the most optimistic Rays fans expected. Manager Kevin Cash has expertly mixed and matched his pitching staff under the team's "opener" strategy, .
As well as they've played -- the Rays are 49-38 since their 3-12 start -- the fact remains the Rays are 18 1/2 games back in the AL East and nine games back of the second AL wild-card spot. FanGraphs puts their postseason odds at 0.5 percent. SportsLine is slightly more optimistic at 1.1 percent. Tampa's current situation strongly suggests they will miss the postseason for the fifth straight season.
Given those postseason odds, the front office has been acting accordingly. On Wednesday the Rays traded both Nathan Eovaldi ( ) and Matt Andriese ( ), and weeks ago they shipped out Alex Colome and Denard Span ( ). Others like Sergio Romo, Wilson Ramos, Carlos Gomez, and Jonny Venters could be moved prior to Tuesday's non-waiver trade deadline.
Another player who could be traded: Chris Archer, who is no stranger to the trade rumor circuit. He's been on the trade block for years, and that makes sense, right? The Rays haven't been in contention for a while and they have a history of trading their top players as they become more expensive. Everyone from Evan Longoria to David Price to James Shields to Matt Garza has been traded away.
Not surprisingly, teams are once again checking in on Archer prior to the trade deadline. MLB.com's Jon Morosi has the latest:
One source told MLB.com that as many as eight teams have contacted the Rays about Archer recently ... The D-backs, Cubs, Padres and Phillies are among the teams interested in Archer, and all of them had scouts in attendance for Archer's season-high 13-strikeout performance on Sunday.
The Rays have thus far have resisted the temptation to trade Archer. Given their history, it would not surprise me to see him traded tomorrow. These things can change in a hurry. In fact, I don't think there's a better time for the Rays to trade Archer than right now, meaning at some point before the July 31 trade deadline. Here are the two biggest reasons Tampa should move their nominal ace for what would surely be a strong prospect package.
The pitching market is very weak
This is not a good trade deadline to need starting pitching. There are no true difference-makers with long-term control available. With Eovaldi off the board, the top rentals are J.A. Happ, Cole Hamels, and Tyson Ross. Zack Wheeler is reportedly available, though the Mets seem unwilling to trade Jacob deGrom or Noah Syndergaard. The pitching market is weak.
Because of that, the interest in Archer might be even greater than usual (and it's usually pretty great). The trade market is driven by supply and demand. There are lots of teams looking for pitching and not much quality pitching available. Archer would change the market and draw interest from every type of team, including contenders and rebuilders. Simply put, in this thin market, the Rays would control the top pitching asset. They're in the driver's seat.
Archer's value only goes down from here
Truth be told, the Rays missed their chance to trade Archer for maximum value a few years ago. His value was as its absolute highest following the 2015 season, when Archer logged 212 innings with 252 strikeouts and a 3.23 ERA (121 ERA+) en route to finishing fifth in the AL Cy Young voting.
Fast forward to July 2018, and there are three main reasons why Archer's trade value is likely to one decrease from here. One is his age. He turns 30 in September (yes, really) and 30 is a scary number in baseball these days. Teams don't like paying for players past their prime. They look at Archer and see someone whose best years are probably behind him.
Secondly, the clock is ticking on his contract. Archer is owed $7.67 million next season and his contract includes club options for 2019 ($9 million) and 2020 ($10 million). A bargain rate, no doubt. But if the Rays trade Archer now, they can sell him as a pitcher who can help you for four postseason races. Trade him after the season, and it's only three. That matters.
And third, Archer's performance has slipped in recent years. He was borderline ace-caliber earlier in his career. Now? Now Archer is closer to a league-average hurler, and hey, league average is valuable in its own way. Just not as valuable as someone who could pass for an ace. The numbers:
Archer's last start perfectly encapsulated the "Chris Archer in 2018" experience. Against the Marlins last Sunday, Archer struck out 13 and walked zero in six innings. That's great! He also allowed four runs on eight hits, including a homer. Lots of strikeouts, more runs than you'd like.
Proponents points to the sexy strikeout and walk rates. Detractors point to the increase in hard contact. Here is Archer over the years:
Not a good trend. It's one thing for a player to have a down season or to underperform his FIP -- FIP, or Fielding Independent Pitching, is a metric scaled to ERA that evaluates a pitcher on his strikeout, walk, and home run rates -- for a few months or even across a full season. Archer has done it for nearly 500 innings now. We've reached to the point where it's not crazy to think this is who he is. The strikeout and swing-and-miss rates are excellent. But the mistakes are too frequent and hit hard.
"If you're expecting someone to save a season the way Verlander did with the Astros last year, he's not that kind of guy,'' the scout said. "He's stubborn when it comes to pitch selection. But he's such a good competitor, and he's not going to leave anything out there.
"I don't think he's a No. 1 starter, personally -- or a No. 2. It's not about the stuff. But he'll make more mistakes than a No. 1 or 2 can afford to make. He can pitch like a No. 1 on any given day or a No. 5 on any given day. I think he's in the middle of those two spectrums.''
That sums it up. Some days Archer will truly dominate like he did from 2013-15. But there are far too many days like Sunday, when the strikeouts are there, but so is the hard contact and thus runs allowed.
Between the decline in performance, his upcoming 30th birthday, and the years ticking away on his sweetheart contract, it's hard to see how Archer's trade value goes anywhere but down from here. The best case is it remains unchanged going into the offseason. The longer Tampa waits, the less valuable Archer become to interested teams.
Given his track record and reputation -- Archer is an A-plus teammate and person who is a great ambassador for the game -- there are plenty of teams eager to add Archer to their rotation. At worst, you can count on him to be a league average innings eater on a bargain contract. At best, he can pitch like an ace. Maybe not as often as he once did, but the ability is still there.
The current pitching market is very thin, though there are still lots of teams looking for high-end rotation help they can retain beyond this season. Archer fits. Even with the performance decline, the Rays would receive a hefty package for Archer right now, probably better than anything they could expect going forward. Tampa is out of the postseason race and there's enough trending the wrong way with Archer that, the longer the Rays wait to trade him, the riskier it becomes.