To paraphrase ILoveMakonnen, the Rays win, win, win again, so they spend, spend, spend. Tampa Bay threw his hat in the free agents ring on Thursday Nacht by signing right-hander Zach Eflin to a three-year, $40 million deal. That one of baseball’s most narrow-minded teams would spend eight figures a year on a free agent comes as a bit of a surprise, at least, and every time the Rays pull out their checkbook, some amusing historical facts bubble to the surface.
sure enough the esteemed Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times reached into his pocket and pulled out a real sucker: Eflin’s $40 million deal is the largest free agent deal in franchise history by total value. Turns out the previous record holder was Wilson Alvarez, who signed for $35 million over five years in the franchise’s first year of existence.
A $40 million contract isn’t that much by modern baseball standards; By the way, it’s the second pair defender’s money for the Tampa Bay lightning. But the signing might surprise viewers who last saw Eflin as the third-best assist in a Phillies bullpen that wasn’t as bad as its reputation, but still wasn’t exactly the Reds of 1990. Let’s see what Zach Eflin brings you $40 million these days.
Of course, Eflin wasn’t always a helper; He only moved to pen this summer to speed his return after injuring the fat pad in his knee in June. (By the way, that’s how I learned there’s a part of the human knee called the fat pad.) The Rays will almost certainly bring him back to the rotation, where he served well in parts of seven seasons in Philadelphia. Since his first full season in the rotation, in 2018, Eflin has averaged 19 starts and 106 innings per year, with a 4.16 ERA. His best season was the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign, during which he made 11 starts (one of them a full game shutout), posted a 3.39 FIP, and for the first time (and only) hit more than one batter per inning in his career. But all in all he was a pretty reliable starter in the league average.
If that’s all he’s up to, it should suit Tampa Bay quite well; Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen and Tyler Glasnow are capable of spectacular things, but three good pitchers don’t rotate. And Eflin is a huge upgrade for guys like Josh Fleming at the end of the rotation.
But for league-average pitchers, Eflin is pretty interesting. As previously mentioned, the crossed out numbers are nothing special; his career K% is 19.7%, and 2020 notwithstanding, he’s been just a few ticks from that number throughout his career. His most common throw is a sinker and he can get a groundball, but he’s not exactly Framber Valdez; Eflins GB% ranked 69th out of 188 pitchers who pitched at least 70 innings last year.
But while making contact outside of Eflin is easy, making hard contact is difficult. Check out the patriotic lollipops on his Baseball Savant page; The red fire engines are for Average Exit Speed, HardHit%, and Walking Speed. Eflin also compares very well to the rest of the league in the expansion, which isn’t surprising since he’s 6ft 6 tall and has arms like those of a spider crab. But he doesn’t throw particularly hard and his clay discs don’t spin particularly fast.
Eflin has a wide and constantly evolving repertoire of pitches. After being four seamer-dominated earlier in his career, he went flat-heavy in 2020, coinciding with his best season. That year he introduced a cutter and started using his curveball more. Up until this season, the slider was his most common runner-up, and he rarely threw more than a few curveballs per game. That year, one in five pitches he threw was a curve ball, and he threw six curves for each slider. He also basically stopped throwing his changes when he went into the bullpen, but that pitch 1) was never a big part of his game initially and 2) could come back now anyway since he has to flip a lineup again.
The knee injury prevented Eflin from building any momentum with his revamped arsenal this season, but he served well when he lined up in 2022. The Rays can probably count on some advantage if they take a pitch-to-contact guy and put him in front of a better defense than Philadelphia’s. Eflin is also the youngest starting pitcher in this free-agent class at eight months, meaning the Rays can sign him to a fairly long-term contract and still not buy any of his decline; Eflin will only be 31 at the end of this deal, significantly reducing the downside risk for the team. And if Mike Clevinger can get $12 million on the open market, $13.3 million a year is a steal for Eflin, who turned down his half of a $15 million option with the Phillies.
Being the Rays, however, it feels like there’s a different angle. As much as the Rays have a reputation for being one of the most accomplished player development organizations in baseball, their record of squeezing additional gear out of established pitchers is a mixed bag. They’ve had a lot of success developing bullpen arms, and they’ve done well in getting Corey Kluber to 31 starts after a tough couple of years due to injury. And that could be important for Eflin, who isn’t exactly injury-prone but has a long list of nagging minor ailments – knees, back, slanting, blisters, you name it.
The guy I would call a huge developmental hit is Rasmussen, whom the Rays drafted in the first round in 2017, didn’t sign due to injury concerns, and then acquired in a trade with Willy Adames in 2021 anyway. Rasmussen has had a 2.72 ERA in 205 innings, mostly off rotation, since joining Tampa Bay last year. And while you won’t find a pitcher less like Eflin in terms of body type or movement profile, the two do share a few things in common. Namely, they both have low strikeout and walk rates, and both—as Ben Clemens wrote in August—have recently added a cutter while de-emphasizing their slider. Maybe there’s something about Eflin the Rays that they think they can improve on and turn this contract into a bargain instead of just a good deal for both parties.
But even if it doesn’t, that’s fine for Tampa Bay. Eflin is a solid mid-rotation starter, and the Rays locked him in for a reasonable rate and length of time. Would teams like the Rays make more signings like this?