Before Chris Archer made his first start of the 2014 season, the Rays made him a rich man. The player and his team agreed to a six-year, $25.5 million deal with two team options that would push the total compensation to $43.75 million over eight seasons. It was just the latest entry in the trend of locking up potential superstars before they hit their arbitration years, thus locking them in at a price rather than submitting to the uncertainties of the arbitration process. The Rays, of course, pioneered this practice when they signed Evan Longoria to a six-year, $17.5 million contract that included three team options back in April of his rookie year of 2008.
The Archer deal, however, is different for a few reasons. First of all, he hadn't yet racked up a full year of service time. We've seen plenty of players over the years take the guarantee of many millions now while sacrificing the opportunity for an even bigger payday, but no one got as much with as little time in the majors as Archer did. That is not to say Archer did not deserve the contract or that the Rays jumped the gun by signing him to what could be an eight-year deal this early in his career. In fact, Andrew Friedman might have outdone himself by locking up Archer from ages 25 through 32 at an average annual value of $5.47 million.
Archer has always had the pedigree and ceiling of a front-of-the-rotation starter. He was the No. 36 prospect in baseball before the 2013 season, according to Baseball America. The stuff that made him a top prospect has translated to the majors, as a fastball that sits at 95 mph and a wicked slider usually do. In 2013, Archer's age-24 season and first full one in the majors, he had a 3.22 ERA, 3.91 xFIP, 1.13 WHIP and 101 strikeouts against 38 non-intentional walks in 128.2 innings. Yes, the run-prevention ways in Tampa helped keep his ERA lower than his peripheral stats projected it should have been, but all things considered, that's a healthy first year as a major league starting pitcher.
In Archer's 23 starts last year, he produced 1.2 fWAR. He made six appearances, four of which were starts, in 2012, amassing 0.5 fWAR. That gives him 1.7 wins above replacement in 29 appearances, including 27 starts, or about one season's worth of playing time for a starting pitcher. While dollars per WAR calculations vary, they generally sit in the neighborhood of $6 million. Archer produced 1.7 wins in his age-23 and age-24 seasons, which translates to about $10.2 million in wins. The Rays are getting him for just more than half of that per year for the next eight years, and that ignores the growth that he is bound to make as he progresses through his mid-20s and into his prime.
Archer threw well in his first start of the year, allowing two runs on four hits while striking out seven in six innings in just a hint of what's to come for the Rays this year, and likely every year through 2021. Tampa Bay has itself a highly affordable commodity at a hard-to-fill position, and while there's always some risk in handing a six-, or potentially eight-year extension to a starting pitcher, it's impossible to argue with the logic behind this one. Archer will be a major asset for his fantasy owners this year, and for the Rays into next decade.
Starting pitcher barometer
• Nathan Eovaldi, Miami Marlins -- Eovaldi followed up his brilliant opening start of the season by striking out eight Padres across seven innings, giving up three runs on six hits. He was one out away from shutting the Padres out in his seven frames, but surrendered a three-run homer to Alexi Amarista and ended up taking the loss. In his two starts, his fastball has averaged 95.9 mph and he has leaned on his slider much more than in the past. Predictably, he's getting more empty swings than ever before. Yes it's about as early as it could be in the season, but Eovaldi looks primed to make the leap this year.
• Jose Fernandez, Miami Marlins -- It seems absurd to upgrade Fernandez because, really, how much higher could he go. But that's exactly the position the electric righty is putting me in this week. In two starts this season, Fernandez has allowed one run on eight hits and two walks in 12.2 innings. He has 17 strikeouts and has picked up wins both times out. Every time he takes the mound is appointment television.
• James Paxton, Seattle Mariners -- Paxton dominated the Angels in his first start of the season, tossing seven shutout innings and allowing just two hits and two walks while striking out nine. Paxton features a blazing fastball that sat at 95 mph in that start against the Angels and a filthy curveball that generates a ton of swinging strikes. In four starts in the majors last year, Paxton allowed just four earned runs and 15 hits while striking out 21 in 24 innings. Hisashi Iwakuma made himself the No. 2 behind Felix Hernandez last year, and Taijuan Walker has more hype, but it very well could be Paxton who gives the Mariners, and fantasy owners, the most value this season.
• Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds -- After missing most of last season due to injury, it was important for Cueto to get off to a strong start this season. He has done just that, allowing three earned runs and eight hits in 14 innings, striking out 17 and walking four. His average fastball velocity of 93.3 mph is right in line (actually, a touch higher than 2011 and 2012) with his career numbers. One noticeable change in his repertoire is that he has traded in a number of four-seamers early on, preferring his two-seam fastball while still throwing his cutter about 16 percent of the time. If he's getting the same results of the pre-2012 Cueto, he can be a fantasy No. 1.
• Jenrry Mejia, New York Mets -- Mejia beat out Daisuke Matsuzaka for the final spot in the Mets' rotation, and it was easy to see why in his first start of the season. The 24-year-old struck out eight Reds in six innings, allowing one run and four hits. He did walk five batters, but he showed the swing-and-miss stuff that makes him a real fantasy sleeper this year. There was one red flag, however, as his average fastball failed to reach 90 mph. Keep an eye on that when he takes the mound against the Braves on Thursday.
• Chris Tillman, Baltimore Orioles -- All Tillman has done thus far this season is hold the Red Sox and Tigers, presumably two of the best offenses in the majors, to two runs on 12 hits and two walks in 13.1 innings, as well as outduel Justin Verlander for a win. He has nine strikeouts in his first two outings and the velocity on his fastball is up to 92.9 mph, on average. Tillman is 26 years old and probably will never become a big-time strikeout pitcher, but he could jump up a level this season.
• Doug Fister, Washington Nationals -- I'm refusing to downgrade any pitchers after one week. However, Fister had to push back his throwing program as his lat strain continues to give him trouble. He played catch on Sunday for the first time since suffering the injury, making throws from 60 feet. The Nationals expect him to be on the DL for another month or so, simply to build up arm strength.