Could the Dodgers and Rays be on the verge of the first big trade of the season? Per ESPN's Jayson Stark, an unnamed baseball executive who has been discussing trades with Tampa Bay believes the two teams are a perfect fit for one another, and that there is a "70 percent" chance of a deal sending righthander Chris Archer to Los Angeles. While no one is reporting that any swap between the teams is close or that the Rays have even put Archer on the market, it's worth wondering how a deal like that might shake out, and if it makes sense for Tampa Bay to trade away its ace.
For the Dodgers, targeting Archer makes perfect sense. The 27-year-old righty is having a rough season, with a 4.60 ERA, an 88 ERA+ and 20 home runs allowed in 123 1/3 innings. But the rest of his resume is impressive: From his first full season as a starter in 2013 through last year, Archer posted a 3.26 ERA and 117 ERA+ with 526 strikeouts in 535 1/3 innings. Just 15 other pitchers over that time had a higher ERA+ in 500 or more innings, and Archer's strikeout total in those three seasons ranked in the top-20 among all major league starters. Last season was particularly special: Archer posted a 3.23 ERA and a 120 ERA+ in 212 innings, earning a fifth-place finish in the AL Cy Young voting. His strikeout-per-nine rate of 10.7 was fourth-best for starting pitchers—trailing only Chris Sale, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer—and his 4.3 WAR was fifth among AL starters.
That success makes Archer's struggles this season all the more confusing. His ERA and ERA+ figures are his worst for a full season, and his home-run-per-nine rate has nearly doubled from last year, going from 0.8 to 1.5. That preponderance for allowing home runs combined with an uptick in his walk rate (2.8 to 3.7) has offset his strikeout rate of 10.7 per nine, seventh-best in baseball. Of Archer's 21 starts, only nine have been quality, and he is averaging just 5.9 innings per outing. A lot of that damage came in a brutal first month of the season, when he allowed 18 earned runs and seven home runs in 32 1/3 innings. But while things have improved since then, Archer still seems off: His ERA since the start of June is an unsightly 4.57.
A closer look at Archer's stats suggests a lack of command with his four-seam fastball. Hitters are slugging a gaudy .546 against the pitch this season, up from .405 last year, and 12 of his 20 home runs allowed have come on that pitch. Notably, his average fastball velocity has dropped from last season, going from 95.2 mph in 2015 to 94.1 this year. His velocity has picked up since as the season has gone on, however; according to Brooks Baseball, Archer's fastball sat at 94.84 mph in April and May but has jumped above 95 since, averaging 95.14 in his four July starts. It's worth wondering if Archer's heavy workload last season—those 212 innings were a career high and a 20-inning jump from 2014—has caught up to him.
It's too soon to tell if these struggles are merely a blip or the signs of something more troublesome, but for any team interested in trading for Archer, that likely won't matter. Archer's age, track record and bargain contract—he signed a six-year, $25.5 million deal before the 2014 season that includes affordable club options of $9 million for '20 and $11 million for '21—make him arguably one of the most valuable assets in the game. Before the season, SI.com's Jonah Keri put Archer 11th in his preseason trade value rankings, the highest spot for any pitcher on that list. This year's poor results have likely dinged Archer's value somewhat, but with that kind of below-market contract, he remains a steal for whatever team he's on.
Will that team be the Rays? At 38–57, Tampa Bay is on pace to lose 97 games, which would be the franchise's worst finish since dropping 96 games in 2007. The Rays have always had a team-building philosophy, driven by its small-market status, that emphasizes the draft and player development. Free agency is not a viable option for a club that had a $77 million payroll last year (second-lowest in all of baseball) and a dropped that figure to $66 million this season.
The problem is that the team's player development wing, once one of the best in baseball, has lapsed into mediocrity: Before the season, ESPN's Keith Law ranked Tampa Bay's farm system No. 14 among the game's 30 teams. Recent drafts have produced little: The Rays scored big in 2011's first round by snagging lefthander Blake Snell, who has a 3.11 ERA in seven starts for them this season, but most of the team's other selections have yet to pay off. Not one member of the club's 2013, '14 or '15 draft classes have reached the majors, and of the group of '12 draftees, only a handful have accumulated any major league time—most for other teams.
Tampa Bay, in other words, needs help. They are reportedly listening to offers on all of their slumping starters, including Matt Moore (94 ERA+) and Jake Odorizzi (92), but Archer would be the biggest prize, and someone who could command a franchise-altering haul in return.
At the moment, however, there doesn't appear to be anything imminent. Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal reports that the Rays have essentially laughed off the offers they've gotten for Archer. It's unknown if they've spurned the Dodgers, but with former Rays general manager Andrew Friedman in charge of baseball operations in Los Angeles, it's easy to imagine that he would check in with his former club to see what Archer would cost. That's all the more likely given the bad news the Dodgers got on Tuesday, when they learned that Clayton Kershaw will be sidelined indefinitely with a back injury and could be facing season-ending surgery.
The loss of Kershaw is a terrible blow to a rotation already struggling to stay healthy and productive: Along with Kershaw, Alex Wood and the perpetually injured Hyun-jin Ryu are on the disabled list with elbow troubles, and the team is still awaiting the return of lefty Brett Anderson from off-season back surgery. That leaves a rotation filled by Kazmir, Japanese import Kenta Maeda, Brandon McCarthy (who just returned from 2015 Tommy John surgery) and middling veteran Bud Norris, with the fifth spot a rotating cast of Triple A bodies.
That group has struggled in Kershaw's absence: Though L.A. is 10–6 since he went on the DL on June 30, the starting rotation has posted a 4.71 ERA in the month of July. While that hasn't hurt the Dodgers' playoff position—they've actually gained two games on the slumping Giants in the NL West—they remain four games out in the division and face the prospect of a winner-take-all wild-card game without their three-time Cy Young award winner on the mound. As such, a trade for any above-average pitcher would be a positive, and the addition of an ace like Archer could change the complexion of the NL playoff race.
The cost for Los Angeles to get him might be steep, however. Any offers would likely have to start with top prospect Julio Urias. The 19-year-old lefty made his major league debut this year after three-plus seasons of carving apart the minor leagues, and while his results have been spotty at best (a 4.69 ERA and 17 walks in 40 1/3 innings), there's no doubting his electric stuff (he has 48 strikeouts in that same span).
If Urias is deemed untouchable, then L.A. could still put together an impressive package of prospects. That would probably include Jose De Leon, a 23-year-old Puerto Rican righthander and the team's top non-Urias pitching prospect. Ranked 25th on Baseball America's midseason top 100, De Leon has a 2.49 ERA and a whopping 64 strikeouts in 43 1/3 innings for Triple A Oklahoma City, and his career strikeout rate over four seasons in the minors is 12.5. Tampa Bay would also probably target first baseman Cody Bellinger. The son of former big leaguer Clay Bellinger, Cody was a 2013 fourth-round draft pick who pounded high A pitching last year to the tune of an .873 OPS and 30 home runs in 128 games. While those numbers have slipped slightly in his first taste of Double A this season, Bellinger is very young for that level (he just turned 21 on July 13), and, as BA notes in its write-up of Bellinger for the top 100, his "leveraged lefthanded swing produces 30-homer power potential." That would make him a must-have piece for the Rays.
Other teams might also want to make a bid for Archer too. The Rangers, for instance, could offer someone like third baseman Joey Gallo, whose plus power potential would fit nicely in a Rays lineup bereft of mashers, or perhaps Jurickson Profar, a former No. 1 prospect who right now functions as the Rangers' utility infielder for lack of an open position but is still just 23 years old and a terrific hitter. (It's worth noting that Rosenthal has reported that talks between the Rays and Rangers over pitching have gone nowhere.)
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There's also the fact that Tampa Bay could probably get a better deal in the off-season; this year's deadline market is woefully short on pitchers, but the same is true of this winter's free agency. At that point, the Rays could try to rope in teams that have already given up on this season but could look to accelerate a rebuild—such as the Phillies or the Twins.
It's also hard to imagine that trading Archer will do Tampa Bay much good. Barring the likes of Urias being involved, it's a stretch to think that any prospect the Rays get back will be as good and as valuable any time soon as he is already. Worst of all, Tampa Bay isn't selling high; it may want to wait until the off-season if not next summer in hopes of getting the maximum return. The smarter move for the Rays this season would be dangling Moore and Odorizzi in a pitching-starved market and hoping someone overpays for them.
But if Tampa Bay has decided that the time to move Archer is now, then the Dodgers have the immediate need and the prospects to make a deal happen. And while other teams could get involved, it's hard not seeing Los Angeles as the best possible match in terms of want and the ability to pay what would be an astronomical price. It may be too late for the Rays to make an on-field impact in this year's playoff race, but with just one move, they could swing the chase for the pennant in a wild new direction.