The Pirates announced Wednesday that right-hander Chris Archer underwent surgery yesterday to relieve symptoms of thoracic outlet syndrome. The surprising, out-of-the-blue announcement rules Archer out for any games that are played in 2020. He’s expected to be ready for full competition in 2021, per the team’s press release, although his future with the club is far from certain at this point. The Pirates hold an $11MM club option ($250K buyout) over Archer for the 2021 season. The decision to undergo surgery came after “consulting with several leading vascular and orthopedic surgeons in recent weeks,” according to the Pirates.
The track record of pitchers coming back from TOS surgery, which typically involves the removal (or partial removal) of a rib in order to alleviate pressure on nerves in the shoulder/armpit area, is rather poor overall. Matt Harvey, Tyler Thornburg, Tyson Ross, Nate Karns, Matt Harrison, Carter Capps, Andrew Triggs and Kyle Zimmer are among the players to have undergone the surgery in recent years. None of that bunch has found much success upon returning. That said, recently retired righty Chris Young attributed TOS surgery to salvaging his career, and we’ve seen other success stories in Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia and Clayton Richard. It’s not an insurmountable hill to climb, but a TOS procedure is one of the more ominous arm operations a pitcher can undergo.
The revelation of a TOS diagnosis goes a long way toward explaining some of Archer’s recent struggles. From 2013-17, the righty pitched to a 3.60 ERA (3.45 FIP) with 9.7 K/9 against 2.9 BB/9 in a hitter-friendly American League East division. His numbers dipped a bit in 2018 but were generally serviceable. In 2019, however, Archer was lit up for a 5.19 ERA (5.02 FIP) with career-worst marks in BB/9 (4.1) and HR/9 (1.9). In retrospect, Archer’s 2019 season did end about a month early due to shoulder discomfort, and he was slowed by neck pain this spring prior to the league shutdown. However, while those symptoms are present in most TOS cases, most instances of neck/shoulder discomfort for pitchers don’t result in a TOS diagnosis.
Rather, much of the reason for Archer’s struggles in Pittsburgh were previously believed to have been due to the organization’s push to use a two-seamer/sinker that simply wasn’t an effective pitch for the right-hander. Archer had scrapped the two-seamer years prior, but the since-dismissed Pirates regime had a pitching philosophy that focused on incorporating sinkers into a pitcher’s repertoire. Archer finally jettisoned the pitch this past June and saw his strikeout and walk percentages immediately trend in positive directions, even though he continued to be unusually homer-prone (an issue that plagued many pitchers in last year’s juiced-ball season). The significant K-BB% gain was one of several reasons I profiled Archer as a rebound candidate back in March, but it’s now clear that there were more concerning causes for his struggles.
The generally poor track record of pitchers returning from TOS surgery presents the perennially low-spending Pirates with a particularly difficult decision this offseason. With teams losing enormous revenue amid the pandemic shutdown, it’s widely expected that free agents and arbitration-eligible players will feel the effects of those losses. Many in the game expect a depressed free-agent market and a spike in the number of non-tendered players. Archer’s club option is a net $10.75MM decision for the Pirates — a figure that represents nearly 18 percent of their would-be $60.7MM payroll in 2020. On the surface, it’s immensely hard to see owner Bob Nutting green-lighting such a commitment.
At the same time, the Pirates gave up Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows and prospect Shane Baz to acquire Archer in a trade that now looks to be among the most regrettable swaps in franchise history. It’d be understandable if the club sought one final bite at the apple, so to speak, in hopes of a rebound that could help salvage some value from that deal, be it in the form of a quality performance from Archer or a summer 2021 trade that recouped some prospect capital.
Ownership and the new front-office regime, headed by GM Ben Cherington, will have several months to decide, but it’s certainly plausible that Archer has pitched his final game as a Pirate.