Entering his start against the Chicago Cubs in a few minutes, Chris Archer has already faced the team that drafted him twice. However, it was not the Chicago Cubs that drafted him–that title actually belongs to the Cleveland Indians, who subsequently traded him for Mark DeRosa. In any event, something that has often been discussed about Chris Archer’s career is that he is a pitcher who has electric stuff yet has been traded twice, first in that DeRosa deal, and then to the Tampa Bay Rays in the better-known Matt Garza trade. He was actually only in the Cubs system for two seasons, but an interesting two years they were.
In 2008, Archer’s final year in the Indians’ system, he was an inconsistent pitcher at Low-A Lake County. He wasn’t terrible, going 4-8 with a 4.27 ERA and 8.3 strikeouts per 9 innings, but he walked a scary 6.6 per 9 as well. He was a 19 year old right-hander who could occasionally hit the mid-90’s with his fastball and show sharp movement on his breaking ball, but his command of both pitches was extremely inconsistent, and no one knew what he would turn into. After the 2008 season, Archer wasn’t even ranked among the Indians’ top 30 prospects by Baseball America. Then he joined the Cubs system, and everything came together.
Archer repeated the Low-A level with Peoria in 2009 and was excellent, going 6-4 with a 2.81 ERA, a 9.8 K/9, a 5.4 BB/9, and a 0.0 HR/9 in 26 starts and 109 innings pitched. He emerged as the Cubs’ #15 prospect, with his control still a concern, but definitely improving. Then came 2010, the season that turned Archer into one of the centerpieces of the Garza trade. He went 15-3 with a 2.34 ERA, striking out 9.4 batters per 9 innings and improving his walk rate to a reasonable 4.1 per 9 in 142.1 innings between High-A and Double-A. Suddenly he was the Cubs’ number one prospect, with Baseball America giving him a chance to reach Wrigley Field by mid-2011. Of course, if we’re being pedantic, Archer did not reach Wrigley Field until today, August 8, 2014. Even if we take the intention of those words, however–Archer making the major leagues–he was stuck at Double-A for nearly all of 2011 and only made 6 big league appearances in 2012 before finally having a big rookie season in 2013. In a sense, Archer’s time in the Cubs system was a step forward only to take a step right back.
When we think about the fact that the Chicago Cubs watched Chris Archer develop into a top prospect only to immediately trade him, it seems reasonable to think that they were still extremely concerned about him. They saw a potential frontline pitcher, but one who, even after his breakout year, could end up in relief or even flame out entirely. Would Archer have gone through the same progression in the Cubs system that he did with the Rays? Maybe, but with the Cubs lacking the Rays’ pitching depth, he likely would have started 2011 at Triple-A and the results could have been disastrous. For all we know, Archer could have been the Cubs’ closer right now, a nice role, but certainly not as valuable as a potential top-of-the-rotation starter in the big leagues. The Cubs never believed in Archer like the Rays did–they did not have the patience nor the pitching depth to wait two more years for him to start reaching his upside.
Chris Archer’s two years in the Cubs organization were critical years because they demonstrated to the Rays that with enough development, he could remain a starter. The Cubs were just the train stop at which he didn’t get off in his journey to the big leagues, but they nevertheless brought him closer to his ultimate goal. When Chris Archer thinks about his time with the Cubs, all he should do is tip his cap and thank them for helping him end up where he belonged, with the Rays.