Rays dive into free-agent pitching market, agreeing terms with right-hander Zach Eflin on a three-year contract. It would be a $40 million guarantee for client O’Connell Sports Management. Eflin will earn $11 million in each of the next two seasons, followed by a salary of $18 million in 2025. The deal is pending a physical.
Eflin had spent his entire big league career with the Phillies. Originally drafted by the Padres, the Orlando native was dealt to the Dodgers and Phils during his time as a minor leaguer. He reached the majors midway through the 2016 campaign, bouncing on and off the MLB roster for the first two seasons. Eflin struggled in his first big league appearances, but he had established himself as a capable arm at mid-rotation in 2018.
That season he made 24 starts and worked to a 4.36 ERA in 128 innings. This kicked off a series of remarkably consistent results. In each of the five seasons between 2018 and 22, Eflin posted an ERA between 3.97 and 4.36. Aside from a spike in strikeouts during the abbreviated 2020 season, he’s had those 3rd/4th starting results the same way every year. He’s proven to be an excellent hitter who misses bats at a slightly below average level but keeps the ball on the ground at a solid clip.
Between 2019 and 2021, Eflin worked at a 4.12 ERA with a slightly below average strikeout rate of 21.4% but a stellar walk percentage of 5.7%. He had followed a similar path to start this season, posting a 4.37 ERA with a 19.6% strikeout percentage and 5.3% walk rate in his first 13 starts. At the end of June, he landed on the injured list with a right knee contusion. It cost him more than two months. By the time he was ready for reinstatement in early September, the Phils had little time to bring him back to a starter’s workload before the end of the year. They accelerated his return to the majors by plugging him into short relief. Eflin made seven appearances out of the bullpen during the regular season, then threw 10 2/3 frames on 10 outings as a high-leverage arm in the Phils’ run to a pennant in the National League.
While Eflin doesn’t miss much at bats, his stellar blend of control and a solid five-pitch mix has allowed him to find quite a bit of success in Philadelphia’s batting-friendly home environment. Against right-handed hitters, he mostly relies on a lead in the 92-93 MPH range, but has turned to a four-seam fastball more often against southpaws. Eflin mixes a cutter and a curveball as his usual secondary offerings, occasionally deploying a slider against right-handers as well. Without a change he often turns to, he’s had his share of problems with left-handed hitters. Southpaws has hit Eflin to a clip of .274/.335/.492 since the start of 2018, but he has stifled same-handed hitters to a mark of .255/.291/.398.
Tampa Bay surely has plans to put him back in the rotation after a healthy offseason. He will step in behind Shane McClanahan and Tyler Glassnow in hierarchical order, join Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs in what appears to be the starting five of the season. The Rays have one of the best pitching prospects in the sport, Taj Bradleywaiting in the wings after a great season in the upper minors. Shane Baz He was expected to take up a rotation position himself, but will likely miss all of next season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in September. Luis Patino, Yonny Chirinos and Josh Fleming are on hand as rotational or multi-inning relief options for what should again be a strong Tampa Bay pitching staff.
If healthy, Eflin fits in well with this group. At the same time, the Rays are placing a bet on a pitcher with a concerning injury history. The knee contusion that cost Eflin a few months this year was the latest in a series of joint problems that have plagued him since before he started his career. He underwent two surgeries to repair the patellar tendons in both of his knees in the summer of 2016. At the time, Eflin admitted he had struggled with chronic knee pain dating back to his teenage years (link via Todd Zolecki from MLB.com). He avoided any worrying injury for the next few seasons, but returned to the knife in September 2021 to repair the patellar tendon in his right knee again. It cut short his year, meaning he’s lost chunks of three of the last six seasons to knee issues. There’s a real risk in investing in a pitcher who’s only gone over 130 MLB innings once in a season.
The Rays were willing to look beyond that to add a pitcher who is usually effective when healthy. Eflin is also one of the younger arms available in free agency. He won’t be 29 until next April, and a pitcher with his age and statistical background may well have found four years on the open market if not for injury issues. Tampa Bay wasn’t the only team to value Eflin in this lineup, as USA Today’s Bob Nightengale tweet the Red Sox had made him the same offer. Eflin opted to join the Rays instead, signing closer to home and avoiding state income tax.
With a salary of $11 million for next season, Eflin becomes the highest-paid player on the Tampa Bay roster. He’ll lose that title in 2024, when Glasnow’s salary climbs to $25 million, but he’ll account for a significant portion of the Rays’ payroll that typically ranks among the lowest in the league. The Rays have now reached about $78 million in projected commitments for 2023, not far from their franchise record of $83 million from last season. The $40 million aggregate guarantee represents the largest free agent investment in Rays history.
It also easily tops MLBTR’s pre-offseason projection of two years and $22 million for Eflin. Deal narrowly beats three-year, $39 million guarantee Tyler Anderson received from the Angels last month. Anderson had rejected a qualifying offer and cost the Halos a draft pick. The Phils chose not to qualify Eflin. Philadelphia won’t receive any compensation for leaving, while the Rays won’t lose any picks to add him. To find Eflin’s replacement, Philadelphia can tap into a rotational free agent market that offers a number of options beyond the top three of the Jacob of Grom, Carlos Rodon and Justin Verlander. Players love Chris Bassit, Kodai Senga, Jameson Taillon, Nathan Eovaldi, Noah Syndergaard, Andrew Heane, Taijuan walker and Sean Manee all remain in the market as strong candidates for multi-year deals.
ESPN’s Jeff Passan was the first to report that the Rays and Eflin had agreed to a three-year contract. Joel Sherman of the New York Post first reported the guarantee at $40 million. Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times reported the specific financial breakdown.
Image courtesy of USA Today Sports.
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