Chris Archer can't catch a break. His stuff is nasty. Archer hit 98 mph on his fastball in the first inning on Sunday against the Yankees, and his slider remains a tight package of pure filth when he needs it to be. But he is mired in a cycle of diminishing returns, which has too often been the case since mentors James Shields and David Price left Tampa Bay.
Archer was an American League All-Star in 2015, the year Price followed Shields out of Tropicana Field, but he started '16 in an uncharacteristic funk, getting torched in two of his first four starts and posting a 5.16 ERA after 10 starts.
That's where Archer stood exactly a year ago. He's gone 9-17 while compiling a 3.66 ERA over 213 2/3 innings (with 245 strikeouts) since then. The Rays, though, were only 11-22 in his starts.
The start on Sunday was typical of what's been happening to Archer. An error on the second hitter of the game forced Archer to have to work out of immediate trouble in the first inning -- thus the four "reach back to get it" 98-mph heaters -- and then Brett Gardner jumped on a slider in the second inning. Archer was down, 3-1, and while he didn't give up anything else, he probably had a good idea where this was heading.
The Rays' best crack at escaping their early hole died when Aaron Judge ran 79 feet to rob Evan Longoria of a double in the sixth inning -- according to Statcast™, the best catch this year by a Yankees outfielder.
Archer is 3-3 with a 3.76 ERA this season, but he is pitching better than that, as his 3.07 FIP and 10.7 K/9 rate show. Toss in a contract that gives his team control through 2021 (with a salary of $11 million that year), and there would be a feeding frenzy if the Rays were to put him on the trade market this summer.
So Archer is the Holy Grail for contenders with a deep inventory of prospects to offer -- the Dodgers, Yankees, Astros and Cubs, to name four. Here's a look at other starting pitchers who could impact the trade landscape before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline:
Pitchers who come with long-term control
Gerrit Cole, Pirates
Even more than Archer, Cole has been dealing, as evidenced by his 2.84 ERA; although you wouldn't be able to tell by his record, which is just 2-4 through nine starts. He'll be a four-plus arbitration guy at the end of this season, and you can figure the Pirates will hold onto him at least as long as Andrew McCutchen. But Cole's starts will turn into Scoutapalooza 2017 if Neal Huntington hints at a rebuild rather than continued pursuit of the Cubs and Cardinals (and the Brewers and Reds, for that matter).
Jose Quintana, White Sox
Quintana has become the Moby Dick of controllable starters on the market. It's been an inconsistent season for the 28-year-old lefty (2-5, 3.92), but he's been more of his low-maintenance, low-run support self lately. The Sox have Quintana under contract through 2018 with options for '19 and '20, so they'll deal him only if they can get top prospects, like they did with Chris Sale and Adam Eaton.
Sonny Gray, A's
Like Cole, Gray will be a four-plus arbitration guy after this season. July might be the right time to deal him if he can continue to throw as he has in four starts since recovering from a lat strain. Gray's velocity is close to where it was in 2013, the rookie season that ended with him blowing away Miguel Cabrera and the Tigers in Game 2 of the American League Division Series, and his slider's been terrific (.154 OBA). Durability is the question, as he has been sidelined for parts of the past two seasons.
Matt Harvey, Mets
The Dark Knight is on thin ice in New York. He could benefit from a change of scenery, although the onus is clearly on him to get results on the mound and become more reliable off of it. Harvey is having a second straight poor season (2-3, 5.56 in eight starts), but he won't be eligible to reach free agency until after 2018, so he could help a pitching-thin team over two seasons.
Yu Darvish, Rangers
Jon Daniels will face a tough decision if the Rangers are on the fringe of the postseason race in July. Every contender will want Darvish, who is eligible for free agency after the season, and the return could be similar to what the Yankees received for Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller last summer. Darvish is 5-2 with a 2.83 ERA, and he is considered unlikely to sign an extension with Texas this summer.
Johnny Cueto, Giants
Cueto is on this list because of an opt-out clause in the six-year, $130 million deal he signed before 2016. He has hardly been dominating this season (4-3, 4.50), so it's probably too early to know what he's going to do with the opt-out. But with the Royals and Giants, Cueto has shown that he can be a difference-maker in October, so contenders are sure to be watching this closely.
Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees
Tanaka can also opt out after 2017, but he has work to do if he's going to build a market to justify walking away from his deal, which guarantees him $67 million over three years. He had bounced back from an Opening Day nightmare, but then he got pounded by the Rays and Astros in his past two starts, elevating his ERA to 6.56. Tanaka's value is more likely to lie in what he can do for the Yankees in August and September than in what he can bring in a trade.
Marco Estrada, Blue Jays
If the Blue Jays don't repeat history by climbing off the mat in June, as they did the past two years, Estrada might be the first starter dealt. He has been consistently good since arriving from Milwaukee, and he has a 3.30 ERA through 10 starts this year. Estrada would figure to bring a nice return, especially if he's dealt early in the process.
Derek Holland, White Sox
Signed as a placeholder to be spun elsewhere, Holland is having a renaissance season (4-3, 2.47) as a 30-year-old. Holland has worked five-plus innings in eight of nine starts and was an out away from getting through the fifth in his shortest outing. And he's worked six-plus innings in seven starts. Holland hasn't allowed a home run to left-handed hitters, holding them to a .211 slugging percentage in 38 at-bats. And so far no freak injuries involving his boxer, Wrigley.