When the Pirates trade for Chris Archer was first announced, it was initially lauded by many in baseball circles. Many felt that Pittsburgh had secured their top of the rotation starting pitcher for the foreseeable future, while only giving up prospects who were seen as potentially flawed.
While the trade now looks extremely lopsided in favor of the Tampa Bay Rays, one can understand why then Pirates general manager Neal Huntington made the decision to trade for Archer.
At the time, Chris Archer was only 28 years of age and was the ace of the Rays pitching staff. When they traded for him, Archer had maintained a respectable earned run average and above average K/9IP rates. In addition, he had been a dependable starter, logging at least 194 IP each of the previous four seasons.
Many felt that Archer simply required a change of scenery, as the Rays were not contending and some felt that was a major reason behind the slight decline in his numbers. Archer was seen as an inning eating, top of the rotation starter, who was under control through the year 2022.
In return, the Pirates would give up once heralded pitching prospect Tyler Glasnow, former top 100 prospect Austin Meadows and a player to be named later, who ended up being pitcher Shane Baz. While Glasnow and Meadows had both been top prospects, since being called up to the major leagues, both had exhibited concerns about their game.
Glasnow, in his first season in the majors, posted an unsightly 7.69 ERA, good for a -1.9 WAR in 13 games started over 62 innings pitched. The following year he would post a more respectable 4.27 ERA and 0.7 WAR in 111 innings pitched. However, at the time he was traded, he had been converted to a relief pitcher. There were major concerns that his height may be an issue that caused him to not be able to repeat proper mechanics for his delivery, making him susceptible to command issues.
Austin Meadows, meanwhile, was called up for the Pirates and was solid, but not spectacular, posting a .292 batting average in 154 at bats, while hitting 5 home runs, with 13 runs batted in, 16 runs and four stolen bases for the Pirates. He was seen by some scouts as a player who would hit for average, while putting up decent peripherals, but did not project as an elite talent in the outfield.
Shane Baz was coming off of a season where he was posting a 4.47 ERA and 1.62 WHIP across 52 1⁄3 innings pitched between rookie ball and A ball. He was considered more of a toss in, as the player to be named later.
The outlook of the trade changed drastically in 2019. The statistics of all of the players that were acquired by Tampa Bay increased exponentially for the better, while Chris Archer suffered the worst season of his career. As a result, many experts were left predicting this could go down as arguably the worst trade in Pirates history. Because of the lopsided trade and the underperformance of the club, general manager Neal Huntington was relieved of his duties following the 2019 season.
Chris Archer would put up a stat line of 3-9, with an earned run average of 5.19, and a WHIP of 1.41 in only 119 2⁄3 inning pitched. All of those stats were easily the worst of his career. In addition, the now 30-year-old righty saw a decrease in velocity and a significant increase in the number of home runs allowed per nine innings pitched, leading many to believe that they will see a significant decline in his performance moving forward.
The 25-year-old Glasnow, since coming over from Pittsburgh, has been electric for the Rays. In what was an injury shortened season, he would pitch 60 2⁄3 innings, starting 12 games and amass a 6-1 record and an ERA of 1.78 and WHIP of 0.89 while striking out 76 batters. While far from a full season, the results were tantalizing for Glasnow, as he showed exactly why he was once one of the top pitching prospects in baseball.
For as good as Glasnow was, the 24-year-old Austin Meadows was even better. He quickly put to rest any thoughts that he was simply a doubles hitter who would hit for decent average, as he smacked 33 home runs in 530 at bats. Meadows would increase his home run rate from a home run every 30.8 at bats with the Pirates, to one every 16 at bats with the Rays. In addition, he would score 83 runs and drive in 89 runs while stealing 12 bases for Tampa Bay, en route to becoming one of the most exciting young players in baseball.
To add injury to insult, Shane Baz, who is just 20 years of age, took a major step forward in his progression, since joining the Rays organization. Last season he pitched to a 3-2 record with a sparkling 2.99 ERA and 1.23 whip in 81 1⁄3 innings, while striking out 87 batters. In doing so, he was named to Baseball America’s top 100 prospects, coming in at 64th overall.
Baseball is a difficult game to predict. Often a general manager will be crushed by a fan base for trading elite prospects, only for those prospects to never live up to the hype, often failing to even reach the major leagues. Injuries and the inability to adjust to the increased talent level of higher leagues are often the primary causes, although sometimes it is simply a misjudgment of talent.
The majority of successful general managers in major league baseball will take the sure fire major league player with a proven track record, over prospects a high percentage of the time. The old adage of prospects being great, but championship banners being greater, typically holds true.
However, every so often, a trade that involves a veteran player for unproven prospects, results in the veteran not living up to expectations and the prospects outperforming expectations. In the case of the Chris Archer trade, it is beginning to appear as though the Pirates are witnessing this rare scenario unfold in the most glaring way.
It is still possible that Archer makes some corrections to his game and bounces back to his old form. After all, his strikeout rates remain impressive, despite poor peripherals. It also remains a possibility that Glasnow continues to struggle with injury or reverts back to having issues with his mechanics. It’s even plausible that Meadows just enjoyed a career year and reverts back to the mean, while Baz struggles and never makes it to the big leagues.
Baseball players to not improve in a linear fashion, making these trades too difficult to predict until years later. All we can go off of is track record, and as a result, the Archer deal currently appears as though it was an unmitigated disaster for Pittsburgh and what amounts to felonious theft for the Rays.