The Rays don’t often make headlines for the amount of money they spend, and when they do, it’s usually on extensions for their own players.
Which made it even more stunning last week when they jumped early to strike a three-year deal with starter Zach Eflin for $40 million, the most they have ever given a free agent.
The total, it seems, is the cost of doing business in the starting pitching market right now. But it was still surprising the Rays got involved, especially given a more obvious need to add offense.
So why did the Rays hand that much to Eflin, who will be 29 in April, has a career losing record and 4.49 ERA over parts of seven seasons with the Phillies, and missed time the last two seasons (and three of six) due to knee injuries?
And be so aggressive in doing so, including a pre-Thanksgiving pilgrimage of team officials to his Orlando-area home?
“We think the best is in front of him,” Rays general manager Peter Bendix told MLB Network at the winter meetings in San Diego.
“When Zach has been able to pitch and be healthy, he’s been fantastic. We’ve seen that he can have excellent command, really good stuff. He’s the type of competitor that you want out there on the mound.
“We think he’s going to be able to pitch a little bit more often than he has; he’s learned how to manage his knees. And he’s somebody that is in the prime of his career.”
Signing Eflin clearly adds to a strength. He will slot into an already dynamic rotation that, barring trade or injury, features Tyler Glasnow, Shane McClanahan, Jeffrey Springs and Drew Rasmussen.
While their run production does need a boost, the Rays typically put a greater emphasis on run prevention, often noting the goal is to end the game being ahead by at least one.
And they have reasons, Bendix said, to think Eflin will “fit really well” in that effort, with more to say when the deal becomes official early next week after a physical.
• Eflin throws a lot of strikes, and though he doesn’t pile up strikeouts (or throw overly hard), he rarely gives out free passes, ranking among the league’s best over 2021-22 with a 4.1 percent walk rate.
“The best thing about him is he’s a great strike thrower,” said Ruben Amaro Jr., the former Phillies general manager turned TV broadcaster. “Man, he throws strikes. He’s not afraid to throw the ball over the plate.”
• He gets a lot of ground balls and doesn’t often get hit hard, ranking in the top 5% last season in average exit velocity (85.3 mph) and hard-hit percentage (31.1).
• He hasn’t been helped by his defense or pitching during half of his games in hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park — both of which will be better with the Rays — or had much luck, given some advanced metrics that suggest his numbers should be better.
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Over the last two seasons, Eflin’s expected ERA — based on the amount, type and quality of contact and not the result — has been notably lower than his actual one: 3.87 to 4.17 in 2021, 3.27 to 4.04 in 2022. Similarly, his Fielding Independent Pitching — which also provides an ERA-type number — has been lower than his actual ERA, 3.68 in 2021, 3.56 in 2022.
• He has a good sense of how best to use his stuff, focusing on a sinker and curveball combo from a broad repertoire that also includes a four-seam fastball, cutter, changeup, slider.
“He has finally gotten to the point where he’s refined what his best pitches are, what makes him most successful,” Amaro said.
That took a while as Eflin was a Class A pitcher when Amaro got him from the Dodgers (who the day before got him from the Padres) in December 2014, and he worked his way into the Phillies’ rotation. Amaro, who was dismissed as GM in September 2015, also said Eflin was a victim of bad advice as the Phillies went through four pitching coaches in four years before hiring Caleb Cotham prior to the 2021 season.
“They had a couple of different pitching coaches trying to influence him, and I think he finally got away from some of the things some of those pitching coaches wanted to do,” Amaro said. “They got away from some of his strengths. … I think, ultimately, he figured out that the sinker/curveball combination was what was gonna end up being his bread and butter.”
• He is considered a tremendous teammate.
“He’s as hard-working and dedicated a professional as there is,” Amaro said. “The makeup on him is just tremendous. I love the guy. He loves to pitch. He wants to win. It was pretty obvious (when he shifted to the bullpen after returning from the injured list this past season) that he would do anything that a coach or organization asked of him. He just wants to be part of a winning culture.”
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