Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Chris Archer pitches for the Tennessee Smokies last season. (Photo by Roger C. Hoover)
I hope everyone all enjoyed yesterday's glimpse of "what might have been" for the Chicago Cubs and the 2011 Maple Street Annual. Today we're going to get the second article, this one on top Cubs pitching prospect Chris Archer.
Remember that there is going to be an article on Matt Cerda in this year's annual as well as a Top 20 Prospects list. And since I assume most of you are interested in the Cubs at the Major League level, there is tons of stuff on that too. Everything you need for the upcoming season can be found by ordering the Maple Street Press Annual here.
After the jump, a look at Chris Archer.
by Josh Timmers
It was New Year's Eve 2008 and Cub fans were looking forward to what 2009 would bring. The team was coming off back-to-back division titles, and while no one was happy with how either postseason went, most fans were optimistic that the Cubs would be playing deep into October in the coming year. But on that day, the Cubs announced that they had traded Mark DeRosa, arguably the most popular Cub on the two division-winning teams, to Cleveland for three minor league pitchers: Jeff Stevens, John Gaub and Chris Archer. Most Cub fans were very unhappy to see DeRosa go, although some of them understood that the team needed to make changes after two straight postseason sweeps. It wasn't losing DeRosa that upset them so much as it was what they got back: three minor league pitchers that most had never heard of.
It's impossible to know how the 2009 season would have gone had DeRosa played for the Cubs. But it's certain that the Cubs aren't going to regret the trade going forward. Stevens has pitched somewhat ineffectively in the majors the past two seasons and Gaub has yet to get a call to the show. But 22-year-old Chris Archer was the Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2010 and could be a mainstay in the Cubs rotation in 2011 and beyond.
Chris Archer was a North Carolina high school prospect when the Indians took him in the fifth round of the 2006 Amateur Draft. Baseball Prospectus called him "A lanky righthander who has touched 95 and offers plenty of projection." Baseball America said, "The athletic Archer has a live arm, a good overall feel for pitching and impressive confidence without a hint of arrogance," although they also said he struggled with command and that his delivery had some kinks to be worked out.
Archer had scholarship offers to attend North Carolina State and the University of Miami, but he signed with the Indians for a $161,000 bonus. While the money was certainly a factor in his decision to forego college baseball, he insists it wasn't the most important factor. "[The Indians] offered me the chance to pitch every fifth day, whether I did good or I did bad," he explained last summer in a Tennessee Smokies pre-game radio interview. "You look at my numbers from when I first started, I didn't pitch very well. If I was in college, I wouldn't have been pitching at all because they need to win now."
Archer wasn't kidding when he said his time in the Indians organization was rough. In 2006, as an 18-year-old in Rookie ball, Archer went 0-3 with a 7.71 ERA. He struck 22 batters in 21 innings, but he walked 18 batters as well. The next season was more of the same. He spent most of the season in Rookie ball again and went 1-7 with a 5.88 ERA. A promotion to the Low-A South Atlantic League in 2008 got his ERA down to 4.29, but he walked an incredible 84 batters in 115 innings. On the positive side, he did hold opposing hitters to a .220 batting average and struck out 106 batters. Both Archer's fastball and slider had a lot of movement on them, but unfortunately, they were both moving out of the strike zone way too often. He tried to do too many things at once, and that meant he had trouble repeating his pitching motion.
It's not fair to say that the Indians gave up on Chris Archer after that season. They still liked him and were still planning to let him pitch every fifth day. But they thought Mark DeRosa was a player that could get them back to the postseason, and they had to give up something, so Chris Archer was shipped off to Chicago.
Public reaction to the DeRosa trade was mixed. Some speculated that the Cubs only wanted the three pitchers to ship them off to San Diego for Jake Peavy. ESPN's Keith Law wrote "The Indians didn't quite get Mark DeRosa for free, but they got him on clearance in a post-Christmas sale. . . None of the three arms going back to Chicago is anyone for Cleveland fans to worry about." Christina Kahrl of Baseball Prospectus wrote of Archer, "he was by turns scary-good and merely scary."
Archer, for his part, accepted the trade with the same easy confidence he shows on the mound. "It was cool," he told Smokies broadcaster Roger Hoover, "Anytime you get traded for a big leaguer, you know someone likes you. Especially if it's someone like Mark DeRosa."
Moving to a new organization meant dealing with a new approach to pitching. Archer did his research on the Cubs when he got traded, and he was impressed with the Cubs track record of developing pitchers and with Minor League Pitching Coordinator Mark Riggins' previous record with the St. Louis Cardinals. When Archer reported to the Cubs, he discovered that they had a completely different pitching philosophy than the Indians. Whereas Cleveland emphasized the mental aspect of pitching, the Cubs wanted him to work on the mechanics. Archer felt the combination of the two approaches would be his key to making the majors.
Mark Riggins, who is now the Cubs' major league pitching coach, thought he could straighten out the kinks in Archer's delivery, which would in turn improve his control. Riggins told him, "We're not going to try to fix three things at once. We're going to work on one thing, get it right, and then move on to another," according to Sean Kernan of the Daytona Beach News-Journal. In particular, the Cubs wanted him to slow down his delivery so that his legs wouldn't get out in front of his arms and the rest of his body.
Entering the 2009 season, the Cubs had Archer repeat Low A ball and assigned him to Peoria. Still young for the Midwest League at 20, he worked on his mechanics one step at a time and showed remarkable improvement. Making 26 starts for Peoria, Archer went 6-4 with a 2.81 ERA. He struck out 119 batters in only 109 innings and opposing hitters could only manage a .200 batting average off of him. He used the downward action on his 92-94 mph fastball to induce a lot of groundball outs, which is unusual for someone who strikes out so many batters. Remarkably, he did not allow a single home run all season long. Archer hadn't completely solved his control problems as he still walked 66 batters, but even that was an improvement over his numbers the year before. Archer was finally learning to keep his delivery consistent, which led to more strikes. For his efforts, Baseball America named him the #16 prospect in the Midwest League and the Cubs' #15 prospect going into 2010.
Archer's 2009 was a hint of what he might accomplish in 2010. Assigned to High A Daytona, he worked extensively with Daytona Cubs pitching coach Tom Pratt. Pratt told him to stop trying to do too much, and the lesson sunk in. "I think he understands the fact that he doesn't have to be perfect in his delivery as long as all the basics are there." Pratt told the Daytona Beach News-Journal. "It's like giving kids a yard to play in and telling them ‘Do whatever you want to do, just don't jump over the fence or leave the yard.'"
Archer applied that lesson well. He struggled in April, going winless in his first five starts and posting an ERA around 6.00. But on May 8, he got his first win with five shutout innings over Clearwater. He followed that up with another five shutout innings against Bradenton. In his next start, he had his best game as a professional against St. Lucie. Although he did give up a solo home run in the first inning, he shut down the Mets the rest of the way, allowing only two hits over six innings. He struck out 10, and, more importantly, didn't issue a single walk.
By the end of the June, Archer improved his record in the Florida State League to 7-1 with a 2.86 ERA. He had struck out 82 batters in only 72 innings and had walked only 26. Pratt's lesson about not worrying about too much had sunk in. "Once you start thinking things are a problem, you let it get to your head," Archer told milb.com.
To no one's surprise, Archer was promoted to Double A Tennessee at the end of June, where he continued to dominate opposing hitters. Between his final two starts in Daytona and his first five starts for the Smokies, Chris put together a streak of 42 innings without allowing an earned run. He was named Southern League Pitcher of the Week at the end of July.
Archer finished the Southern League regular season with an 8-2 record and a 1.80 ERA. He held opposing hitters to a .198 batting average. He did struggle with his control more in Double A than he had in Daytona, as he walked 39 in 70 innings, but he minimized the damage by keeping the ball down, allowing only two home runs. Once Archer got to the playoffs, he saved a gem for Game One of the Southern League Championship Series. Archer pitched six shutout innings and allowed only four hits and one walk. He struck out eight as the Smokies took the first game of the best-of-five series. Unfortunately, his teammates were unable to win another game in the series as the Smokies fell to Jacksonville three games to one, and Archer didn't get another chance to pitch.
Recognizing his tremendous season, Baseball America named Chris Archer the second-best prospect in the Florida State League and the ninth-best prospect in the Southern League. But according to Archer, he saved his best for last. When the season ended, he joined Team USA in Puerto Rico for the Pan American Games qualifying tournament. On October 11, he pitched six shutout innings as Team USA defeated Cuba 4-1. Against the powerful Cuban lineup, Archer allowed only four hits and struck out 10. He told Baseball America, "Command-wise, I don't know how hard I was throwing my fastball, but I was nicking it, and I had the fastball, slider and change all working. Early counts, I was throwing my slider for strikes, and when I got ahead, I was burying it, and because they had to respect the fastball, I got them to chase." He then started the semi-final match against a Dominican Republic team led by 2005 AL Cy Young Award winner Bartolo Colon. Although Archer didn't get the decision, Team USA won. He allowed three runs on four hits over four innings. He did strike out five. He took that easygoing confidence with him to the tournament. "These are the best teams in the world, and if you can pitch against these guys, you can pitch against anybody."
Despite his confidence, Chris Archer is not cocky. He's said on several occasions that he knows he needs to work on the command of his pitches, and he needs to learn how to work more effectively in order to keep his pitch count down. He needs to work on his changeup, but the Cubs think it can be a plus-pitch eventually, joining his fastball and slider.
Archer was added to the Cubs 40-man roster this past offseason, so he'll come into spring training looking to win a spot in the Cubs rotation. But even if the numbers dictate that he has to start out in Triple A Iowa, if he continues to pitch as well as he did in 2010, it's going to be tough to leave him there.
Looking back on the deal that brought Chris Archer to the Cubs, Mark DeRosa didn't spend much time in Cleveland; he was traded to St. Louis in 2009 and then to San Francisco, where he was injured for most of the Giants' World Championship run. Cubs Assistant General Manager Randy Bush summed up the current evaluation of the trade last June, telling the Daytona Beach News-Journal, "I'm really excited about Chris' development . . . That trade at the time wasn't very popular with the fans, but I think in time they may recognize that it was a pretty good trade for the Cubs organization." That might have been the understatement of the year. Cub fans are going to appreciate Chris Archer and the trade that brought him to Chicago for many years to come.