It’s unclear how good Chris Archer actually is. It’s unclear how good Austin Meadows actually is. And it’s unclear how good Tyler Glasnow actually is. But put those three names together and the Rays and Pirates have consummated the most fascinating deal of the MLB trade deadline.
Let’s start with Archer, the Rays’ longtime ace, who is finally leaving Tampa Bay after years of trade speculation. He’s on one of the most team-friendly (or, for Archer, least player-friendly) contracts in the majors, and Pittsburgh will gain club control for the next three seasons for just $27.5 million. He’ll help with the Pirates’ current playoff push, and he’ll help in the future — but perhaps not by nearly as much as his reputation implies.
Since the start of 2016, over the course of 498 1/3 innings, Archer has amassed a collective 99 ERA+, meaning his ERA has been 1 percent worse than average. Out of 108 pitchers with 300-plus innings pitched in that span, Archer ranks 70th; for comparison, new teammate Iván Nova, who embodies back-end competence but nothing greater, has a perfectly league-average 100 ERA+ in that span. More advanced stats agree that Archer is better than that statistic suggests, but his DRA — a Baseball Prospectus ERA estimator that accounts for a variety of external factors when judging pitchers, like catcher framing and opponent quality — has grown worse every year since 2015, too, and there are legitimate question marks about his peripherals even beyond what he’s displayed during this frustrating, injury-interrupted season.
He’s essentially a two-pitch pitcher, throwing his fastball and slider a combined 87 percent of the time this season, which has consistently limited his ability to retire opposite-handed hitters; he has struggled to finish innings with men on base; and since the start of last year, he’s allowed the highest hard-contact rate and lowest soft-contact rate of any qualified starter. Bad luck is a useful explanation for statistical struggles for most talented pitchers, but it’s not bad luck if a pitcher just gets pounded game after game. Archer runs high strikeout and low walk rates and has all the sorts of loud skills a pitcher could want, yet he’s already — surprisingly — going to turn 30 in two months, and he’s now three full seasons removed from his last stint as a veritable awards contender.
Yet he’s not the only member of this trade whose valuation has declined in recent years; the players going to Tampa Bay fit that profile, too. Meadows peaked as the sport’s no. 6 prospect before last season, but he’s essentially stalled since. In roughly a full season’s worth of Triple-A at-bats, the oft-injured outfielder had just a .701 OPS, and after a hot first 11 games in the majors this season, he’s hit .239/.293/.327, with four times as many strikeouts as walks. Glasnow, too, has lost a portion of his prospect luster, after thundering onto MLB’s top-10 prospect lists before both the 2016 and 2017 seasons. In the majors, though, the 6-foot-8 fireballer with a trebuchet for an arm has proved irrepressibly wild, with high walk totals every season: Since the start of 2016, more than 400 pitchers have thrown at least 100 innings, and Glasnow has the group’s second-highest walk rate.
Still, Meadows is just 23 years old, Glasnow 24, and each boasts a half-decade or more of team control. This is a typical Rays move, as they shuffle established major leaguers for yet more youngsters with upside — Tampa Bay’s full reported return is Meadows and Glasnow plus a player to be named later — and trading for prospects with a “post-hype” tinge makes sense if Tampa thinks their flaws are fixable.
The Pirates’ perspective is less crystalline. Pittsburgh has parlayed a 16–9 July record into actual contention and sits 3.5 games back of a wild-card spot. Given the relative weakness of their roster and crowd of teams surrounding them in the race, their playoff odds this year are still low (13.1 percent at FanGraphs, though that number will rise with the addition of Archer) — but that’s OK, at least on the surface, because Archer offers years of control and, importantly for Pittsburgh, years of cheap control.
The logic falters, though, when this trade is considered in context, as the latest link in a chain of rather inexplicable moves. Pittsburgh traded Gerrit Cole in the offseason, receiving a light package from Houston in return that included zero top prospects and has brought Pittsburgh a total of 0.8 WAR this year. Joe Musgrove has shown flashes as a mid-rotation starter, but third baseman Colin Moran has been a slightly-below-league-average hitter and abysmal defender, and Michael Feliz has an ERA north of 5 in relief. Again, those players offer years of cheap control, and Pittsburgh’s version of Cole wasn’t the Cy Young–contender version to which he’s blossomed in Houston, but that deal looked bad for Pittsburgh at the time, and Tuesday’s trade seemingly compounds that frustration.
Archer is durable and reliably decent, at a minimum, and removed from the horrors of the AL East, he might well reclaim his dominance from earlier this decade. But six months ago, the Pirates traded an ace-potential pitcher for an unsatisfying group of prospects; today, they exchanged better prospects for a probably worse pitcher. One wonders whether, had the Pirates made neither noteworthy move, they would have been in better shape for both the rest of 2018 and beyond.