Chris Archer has a top-notch arsenal of pitches and has shown the ability to embarrass hitters. Yet everywhere he has gone in the minor leagues, he has remained an enigma.
Chris Archer was originally drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the 5th round of the 2006 MLB Amateur Draft. He exploded onto the radar of baseball scouts with his junior season at Clayton High School in North Carolina, where he went 11-2 with a 1.09 ERA. Despite committing to Florida State, he decided against heading to college after being drafted, and began his professional career later that summer.
Archer’s minor league debut was rocky at best. In 7 games, 6 starts, for the Gulf Coast League Indians, he went 0-3 with a 7.45 ERA. He did manage to strikeout 21 hitters in 19.1 innings while only giving up 17 hits, however he also walked 17 batters. Despite his struggles, he was able to move on to the Burlington Indians of the Appalachian League. There, he was shelled in his only appearance, giving up 2 hits and a walk in the 1.2 innings he pitched. He also threw a wild pitch, hit a batter, and gave up a home run.
2007 found him starting the season back in the Gulf Coast League. This time, he pitched slightly better, although he still had a rough season. In 12 games, 11 starts, he went 1-7 with a 5.64 ERA. Over the 52.2 innings he pitched, he struck out 48 batters while giving up 56 hits. His control, which had been atrocious the previous season, showed some signs of improvement, as Archer only walked 21 batters, cutting his walks per 9 innings by just over 53%. These improvements were enough to earn him a brief promotion to the Lake County Captains of the South Atlantic League. He appeared in one game for Lake County, giving up 4 earned runs in the 4 innings he pitched. He struck out 5 hitters; however, he walked 3 batters as well.
He remained in the South Atlantic League for the entirety of the 2008 season, where he was relatively successful. In his 27 starts, Archer only had a 4-8 record despite a 4.29 ERA, which marked an improvement of over a run and a half. He pitched in 115.1 innings, and only allowed 92 hits. The 7.2 hits per 9 innings were the lowest of his minor league career at that point. Control problems continued to plague Archer, as his 106 strikeouts were offset by 84 walks.
That offseason, Archer was traded, along with Jeff Stevens and a player recently acquired by the Rays, John Gaub, to the Chicago Cubs for UTIL Mark DeRosa. Assigned to the Peoria Chiefs of the Midwest League, Archer finally appeared to get everything together. He pitched in 27 games, 26 starts, spanning 109 innings for Peoria. He struck out 119 batters, while only giving up 78 hits. Even his control improved slightly, as he only walked 66 hitters, or 5.4 per 9 innings.
Archer continued to impress in 2010. He earned a promotion to the Daytona Cubs of the Florida State League. In half a season there, Archer appeared to have finally turned the corner and had become an elite prospect. He went 7-1 with a 2.86 ERA in 15 games, 14 starts. In the 72.1 innings he pitched, he only permitted 54 hits and walked a mere 26 batters, giving him a WHiP of 1.106, the first time he had allowed fewer than 1.32 runners per inning. He also struck out 82 hitters, giving him the best K/9 mark of his career. Archer was then promoted to the Double-A Tennessee Smokies in the Southern League, where he continued to dominate. There, he posted an 8-2 record with an impressive 1.80 ERA. In 70 innings, he struck out 67 while only allowing 48 hits. However, there were signs that his control issues may not have been entirely been eliminated, as he walked 39 batters.
These efforts earned Archer the Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year award. During the fall of 2010, he pitched for the USA Pan-American Qualifying Team. In the second round against the Cuban team, he pitched six shutout innings, striking out 10 batters and giving up only 2 hits.
For the first time, Archer found himself on the Baseball America Top 100 Prospects list, coming in at 27th overall. Archer was then traded to the Rays, along with Hak Ju Lee, Robinson Chirinos, Sam Fuld, and Brandon Guyer. In return, the Cubs received Matt Garza, Zach Rosscup, and Fernando Perez. Archer was considered to be the centerpiece of the trade, and appeared poised to become yet another promising young pitcher in the Rays system.
However, Archer regressed significantly in 2011. Starting the season back in the Southern League but with a different team, the Rays’ Double-A affiliate, the Montgomery Biscuits, Archer managed an 8-7 record with a 4.42 ERA. Those numbers could have actually been much worse. In the 134.1 innings he pitched, he did manage to strikeout 118 batters. However, he also permitted 136 hits, walked 80 batters, and threw 18 wild pitches. Regardless, Archer received a late season promotion to the Durham Bulls of the International League, where he went 1-0 with a 0.69 ERA. In 13 innings, he struck out 12 batters, yet allowed 11 hits and 6 walks.
Going into the 2012 season, Archer had slipped down to 89th on the Baseball America Prospect Ratings. Through the first 3 games he has pitched, he has gone from being borderline effectively wild to Oliver Perez circa 2010. Archer has somehow managed a 1-2 record, despite his 9.95 ERA. Over the 12.2 innings he has pitched, he has only allowed 11 hits while striking out 11 batters. However, he has walked 13 batters and uncorked a wild pitch. This explains how, despite opponents only hitting .219 against him, they have an on base percentage of .390.
So, what exactly do the Rays have in Chris Archer? The front office still holds out hope that he can develop into at least a middle of the rotation starter. This projection does not appear to be off the mark, if one only looks at his stuff. His fastball, which consistently sits in at 92-94 MPH and touches 97, has a lot of movement and is easily his best pitch at this point. His slider, which has been tabbed as plus-plus in the past, can be a great strikeout pitch when he controls it- something that happens not nearly enough. Archer is just as likely to lose the feel for the slider as he is to throw it for a strike. His changeup and curve are works in progress at best. Even when his stuff has seemed absolutely unhittable, hitters have been able to improve against Archer as they have seen him more often as he has simply been unable to consistently throw any of his pitches for strikes (as evidenced by Archer’s implosion in his return to the Southern League in 2011). Hitters, especially as Archer has risen up the minors, have been patient against him and allowed Archer to simply beat himself with his control woes.
As it stands, Archer may be better off as a reliever. He has two dominant pitches, and if he can ever gain some control over them, he could be an excellent late inning option. However, if he is unable to learn how to throw strikes, despite his electric stuff he will never project as more than a fringe big leaguer who appears in game only due to injuries and team necessity. Chris Archer still possesses an unbelievable amount of potential, but especially for a pitcher at Triple-A, he needs a ton of work.