ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Picture Chris Archer performing with Wrigley Field as the backdrop – the one Joe Maddon compared to a computer-generated scene from “Gladiator” – instead of a dumpy building off Interstate 275.
Archer could see, feel and hear the Cubs fans who took over Tropicana Field on Tuesday night, a crowd of 25,046 saluting Maddon and watching the defending World Series champs play a sharp all-around game in a 2-1 win over a Tampa Bay Rays team that has a less than 1 percent chance of making the playoffs now.
“It’s weird,” Archer said after the tough-luck loss, comparing the scene to last week’s games relocated to New York in the wake of Hurricane Irma. “I didn’t know we had that many people from Chicago, Illinois, Midwest area, in Tampa, but I guess we do. It was just weird for their players to come out and get announced and get so much love. It was strange.
“It felt like we were in Citi Field playing the Yankees, honestly. I’m not being critical. It was just crazy how much royal blue there was out there. When Willson Contreras went out there to warm up the pitcher, he had a standing O.
“I’ve been here for however long – and seen some really good players come – and I’ve never seen anybody get as much love (as they did when) they ran out of the dugout to warm up.
“It was just kind of crazy.”
Archer pitched in the Before Theo farm system, at a time when the Cubs were scrambling to try to pry their window to contend back open after winning back-to-back division titles in 2007 and 2008. Maddon became the beneficiary when the Cubs packaged Archer – who had 13 Double-A starts on his resume at that point – in the blockbuster Matt Garza trade in January 2011.
Archer, who worked last year’s World Series as an ESPN analyst, has pitched in only two playoff games, making two relief appearances out of Maddon’s bullpen when the Boston Red Sox handled the Rays during a 2013 first-round series.
Archer lost 19 games last season while putting up a 4.02 ERA and 200-plus innings. He earned his second All-Star selection this year and will turn 29 later this month. Wonder what the good-but-not-great numbers in 2017 – 9-11, 4.02 ERA, 32 starts, 241 strikeouts – would look like on a contender.
“He is among the elite pitchers, there’s no question about that,” Maddon said. “I don’t watch him enough to know when he goes into these bad moments what exactly is going on. (And) I don’t even know how much certain years luck plays into it or not.
“But the thing about him in a big-city market that would intrigue me is him. He’s really bright. And he’s very socially engaged. For him to be in more of an urban kind of a setting with a greater audience, he could make quite an impact.”
Archer is locked into a team-friendly contract that will pay him roughly $14 million in 2018 and 2019 combined, plus the Rays hold bargain club options for 2020 ($9 million) and 2021 ($11 million). Meaning it would take an unbelievable offer just to get Tampa Bay’s attention.
Archer is also a face of the franchise, a two-time Roberto Clemente Award nominee who visits young men and women in the Pinellas County Juvenile Detention Center and stays involved with Major League Baseball’s RBI Program (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities).
“Beyond being a pitcher who is very, very good, I would be curious if he was in a larger situation,” said Maddon, who has an offseason home and a restaurant in Tampa and sat with Archer during a Buccaneers game last season. “Just because socially, in a community, he’s already done it here. But you put him in a large city with more of an urban situation – he could really be impactful in that city. He’s really engaging when he speaks. He’s very bright. He’s really well-thought-out.”
Archer has come a long way from the Mark DeRosa salary-dump trade with the Cleveland Indians on New Year’s Eve 2008. Stan Zielinski, the beloved scout who died in January, lobbied then-general manager Jim Hendry, insisting the Cubs shouldn’t do the deal without Archer, a Class-A pitcher who went 4-8 with a 4.29 ERA that season.
While closing the Garza deal, the Rays actually pushed for another pitching prospect, but the Cubs wanted to hold onto Trey McNutt. Other players bundled in that trade became useful major-league pieces (Brandon Guyer, Robinson Chirinos, Sam Fuld), but the headliner was supposed to be Hak-Ju Lee, a South Korean shortstop already blocked by Starlin Castro who never made it to the big leagues.
“There was a lot of good players that came the Rays’ way at that time,” Maddon said. “I didn’t know what to expect (from Archer). I saw him in camp. Great arm. Didn’t really have a good feel for command at that time.
“But when you talked to the kid, you couldn’t help but really like him a lot. He and I connected on more of an intellectual level regarding books and stuff, because he’s really well-read. He’s a lot smarter than I’ll ever be. I’ve always enjoyed my conversations with him. And then all of a sudden, he started finding the plate. And that slider’s electric.”
Maddon has already seen what the Cubs brand and Chicago platform can do for his baseball legacy, bank account and off-the-field interests.
Do you want Archer back?
“I didn’t say that,” Maddon said. “That’s something I cannot (say).”