In 2012, the Rays’ closer position was the best in all of baseball as Fernando Rodney was unstoppable on his way to a MLB-record 0.60 ERA and 48 saves. This season? Not so much. Rodney has lost the strike zone entirely, walking a ridiculous 8.3 batters per 9 innings on his way to a 5.40 ERA. His stuff is still incredible, with his fastball averaging over 97 MPH in May and his changeup still showing devastating late bite, but he just can’t throw strikes and is blowing game after game for the Rays because of that. Rodney was so good last year that the Rays are certainly not going to give up on him. Nevertheless, though, we’re approaching the point where the Rays are going to have to heavily consider removing Rodney from the closer role for at least a brief time to get himself back together. Who will close if they Rays do that? Definitely Joel Peralta. But while Peralta is a great pitcher, he’s not the pitcher the Rays have who would be best served in a closer role. That would be Chris Archer.
If you took the top two pitches from everyone on the Rays, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who beats Chris Archer’s fastball-slider combination. Archer’s fastball reaches the mid-90’s consistently as a starter with good movement down-and-away from right-handed hitters when he’s going well. In relief, he would able to touch the high-90’s and maybe even triple digits. But his fastball may not, in fact, be his best pitch. That distinction could very well go to his slider. Archer’s slider features devastating late break, eliciting plenty of ugly-looking swings from opposing hitters. But what makes his slider special is his ability to not just use it as a chase offering but spot it the lower part of the zone to freeze hitters for called strikes as well. And being a starting pitcher his entire career, Archer also throws a changeup, and it’s a decent pitch that has its moments against left-handed batters. If you put Archer’s electric repertoire in relief, the opposition won’t stand a chance. The Rays would never immediately anoint him closer, but if they placed him in a relief role and watched him dominate for a few weeks, they would have to give him a look before too long. And even if Archer never became the closer, what’s wrong with the Rays adding another fireballing setup man to their bullpen?
With that type of three-pitch arsenal, it’s obvious why Archer has been developed as a starter. He needs continued work on his changeup and command, but with further development he has a chance to be a frontline starting pitcher someday. However, that is almost entirely irrelevant to what the Rays are doing right now. David Price went down and they didn’t choose Archer, they chose Jake Odorizzi. That decision was not based purely on merits–Archer was coming off just his second start after a calf injury at the time–but the bottom line is that Odorizzi is the guy for now and yet another starting pitcher injury would have to take place for Archer get a chance. With their bullpen flailing, why should the Rays keep a pitcher in the minor leagues with ability to help change that? Keeping Archer in the minor league is only a precaution for something that in all probability isn’t going to happen and it’s not as though making Archer a reliever right now will prevent him from being a starting pitcher next season. We’ve seen with Wade Davis, Jason Hammel, Andy Sonnanstine and others that the Rays have no problem using a starting pitcher in relief and moving him back to the rotation at a later date. Why can’t Archer be next?
It is so tantalizing for the Rays to bring Chris Archer to the major leagues and use him out of the bullpen. The argument for moving him there seems pretty convincing. The Rays desperately need a stabilizing presence in their bullpen and Archer can be exactly that and maybe even close games. And the only real reason to keep Archer in the minor leagues is for starting depth in case of injury, right? The reality, though, is much more complicated than that. The Rays have to be prepared not just for injury but poor performance. What if Roberto Hernandez can’t turn himself around or Odorizzi doesn’t do the job the next few times out? Say what you want about the Rays’ bullpen struggles, but starting pitchers are exponentially more important. The capacity in which Archer can influence the Rays the most this year is as a starting pitcher. It would be foolish for them to bring him up in a lesser role and find themselves forced to stretch him out mid-season or resort to somebody else when he should have been ready to step right in.
As we mentioned above, the Rays have been wiling to move pitchers back and forth between the rotation and bullpen depending on team need. But Davis, Hammel, and Sonnanstine were far from Chris Archer. If the Rays brought Archer up to move into their bullpen, no matter how much success he achieved he would be losing something from his development. The key for Archer reaching his potential as a number two starter in the major leagues and maybe even an ace is to continue working on refining his changeup and locating his pitches. That doesn’t necessarily have to happen at Triple-A. Archer would almost certainly not be a frontline starting pitcher in the majors right now, but he is still good enough to hold down a rotation spot and could still continue his development as a pitcher as he does so. But if Archer heads to the bullpen and starts rearing back for the high-90’s, how would he possibly make any progress in his maturation as a pitcher? The Rays are trying to win this season, but winning over a sustained period of time has always been their priority and putting Archer in their major league bullpen goes right in the face of that.
Over the next few weeks, there is a chance that the will bring Chris Archer up in a relief role. If they do that, his fastball-slider combination would be scintillating in short stints and he could very well find a great deal of success. However, are the Rays really going to fill a temporary hole when Archer has the ability to be so much more this year and moving forward? If the Rays call up Archer to put him in their bullpen, it will be nothing short of an act of desperation. If the Rays have any other option, they should make sure it never happens.