We didn’t get a Bryce Harper blockbuster on Tuesday, but we did get two fascinating deals, as Chris Archer and Kevin Gausman, two pitchers under team control beyond 2018, were traded out of the American League East to the National League.
Archer has been the subject of trade rumors since the winter after his 2015 season, in which he posted a 3.23 ERA for the Tampa Bay Rays, struck out 252 batters, made his first All-Star team and finished fifth in the Cy Young voting. The 29-year-old right-hander finally has a new home after the Rays traded him to the Pittsburgh Pirates for outfielder Austin Meadows, Tyler Glasnow and a third player to be named.
Archer hasn’t matched the lofty heights he reached in 2014-15, as he has a 4.10 ERA the past three seasons, including a 4.31 mark in 17 starts in 2018. Still, he’s a solid starter, though more of a No. 2/3 these days than the potential ace he looked a few years ago, and he has been durable other than missing a few starts this year with an abdominal strain.
What makes Archer so valuable beyond his ability is his contract. He’s under team control through 2021 at a total salary of $27.67 million from 2019 through 2021, and the 2020 and ’21 seasons are team options, so if he gets hurt, the team can simply decline the option. It’s exactly what the budget-conscious Pirates needed to help a rotation that ranks 10th in the NL in ERA. They’re in the playoff hunt now, just 3.5 games out of a wild card heading into Tuesday’s game, but Archer helps for the future as well.
Realize what some free-agent pitchers signed for this past offseason, and you can see why Archer has been in such demand: Yu Darvish, six years and $126 million; Jake Arrieta, three years and $75 million; Alex Cobb, four years and $57 million; Lance Lynn, one year for $12 million. Archer is good, healthy and cheap, and he is not a $126 million gamble.
The question is whether the Pirates can get Archer back to the pitcher with an ERA below 3.00. Getting out of the AL East and into the NL Central could help (Archer has a 4.02 career ERA against the AL East and 3.40 against everyone else), but another issue is Archer has remained primarily a two-pitch guy, fastball and slider, and that has led to sizable platoon splits.
He obviously has swing-and-miss stuff, averaging 11.1 K’s per nine in 2017 and 9.6 in 2018. When he gets ahead in the count, he can put batters away with the slider, which is why he still racks up the whiffs. But if he falls behind and batters sit on the fastball, he gets into trouble. Batters have hit .318/.409/.512 against the fastball this season after hitting .280/.362/.509 against it in 2017. He has had more success with the changeup this season, but lefties have an .806 OPS off him, compared to .711 for righties.
The other interesting thing is the Pirates have a much different pitching philosophy than the Rays. The Pirates preach fastballs or sinkers down in the zone; the Rays love four-seamers up in the zone. Archer is definitely a four-seam up-in-the-zone guy, so we’ll see if the Pirates try to change his approach.
Gausman is probably even more in need of a change of scenery than Archer. He goes to the Braves, who like the Pirates were more interested in a controllable starter than a rental as they battle the Phillies for the NL East title. Gausman is under team control through 2020, and it made sense for the Braves to dig into the wealth of their farm system for a pitcher who will help for two-plus seasons.
With a 4.22 career ERA, including 4.43 in 2018, Gausman has been inconsistent and sometimes frustrating. The expectations have been high ever since the Orioles drafted him fourth overall in 2012. A couple reasons the trade could help him: (A) He gets out of homer-happy Camden Yards (though he has a 3.70 ERA at home in his career and 4.74 on the road) (B) He gets away from the putrid Baltimore defense.
That last one can’t be overstated. Gausman has a 4.58 ERA the past two seasons, a timeframe in which the Orioles rank 28th in the majors with minus-102 Defensive Runs Saved. The Braves, meanwhile, rank third in the majors in 2018, at plus-43 DRS. Gausman could see immediate improvement from better defense alone.
As with Archer, Gausman’s lack of a quality third pitch has limited his upside. He’s primarily fastball/splitter, with a so-so slider that he has thrown about 16 percent of the time in 2018 and against which batters have hit .279/.286/.529.
Gausman has been healthy in recent seasons, so that’s a plus on his ledger. The Braves have seen surprising results from Anibal Sanchez (3.00 ERA over 78 innings), but who knows if that can continue, and Julio Teheran has struggled with 21 home runs in 115 innings and a 5.45 ERA in his past seven starts. Gausman adds some needed depth with a small chance that the Braves can unlock something the Orioles never did.