ST. PETERSBURG — Zach Eflin had hoped for a long time to be a Ray.
As a kid, he and his friends were big fans of their somewhat hometown team and occasionally drove from their Orlando-area home to watch games.
Coming out of Oviedo’s Hagerty High as a promising prospect, Eflin was invited to a predraft workout and meeting with Rays officials at Tropicana Field. He thought there was a good chance the team would take him in 2012 with their No. 25 pick.
Instead, the Rays selected Richie Shaffer, who didn’t pan out. Eflin, who went No. 33 to the Padres (and was later traded to the Dodgers and Phillies), had to wait until Tuesday to join his favorite team, signing a three-year, $40 million contract that is the biggest the Rays have given a free agent.
“Their (draft) pick was coming up and I heard a lot of good things, and we thought it might be realistic that I was a Ray. It didn’t happen, and I was a little heartbroken,” Eflin recalled Tuesday. “But I think the guys have kind of made up for that. I’m just, I’m thrilled to be able to put this jersey on.”
After jokingly confirming Eflin’s math — “it’s better than the signing bonus ($1.71 million)” — Rays baseball operations president Erik Neander made clear how glad the team is to finally have him, having made some previous trade inquiries.
Eflin, 28, pitched parts of seven seasons with the Phillies, compiling a 36-45 record and 4.49 ERA. He showed enough promise for the Rays to be certain he can do much better by joining their already strong rotation. So much, in fact, that they devoted a significant amount of their limited resources from their top — and still unfulfilled — offseason goal of improving their offense.
“That we made this commitment to Zach — (with) our offense being such a focus — should speak that much more highly to how much we appreciate Zach and how much we wanted him here, to divert from our most public of plans,” Neander said.
“We feel for Zach that the best is very much right in front of him. We’re very confident that’s something that you all will see here over the next three years with us. Zach is not a hitter (.126 career average); we know that. But there’s nothing wrong with making a strength that much stronger.”
The Rays were aggressive in what Neander called “an identified and targeted pursuit” of their “No. 1 priority,” reaching out to Tampa-based agent Tom O’Connell as soon as free agency started.
That was a good start, since Eflin said his top goal as a free agent was “to feel wanted.”
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“I wanted to go somewhere where someone believed in me and thought that I could be the best version of myself with that organization,” he said.
After initial conversations, the Rays made an in-person pitch, a group of six team officials (including manager Kevin Cash) caravaning to Oviedo to meet with Eflin and his wife, Lauren, at their home two days before Thanksgiving. (The Eflins have a 14-month daughter, Ashton, and are expecting twins in early May.) They brought takeout from Outback, which Eflin joked is the best restaurant in their town, and stayed for three hours.
“We kind of just talked about anything and everything,” Eflin said. “We were super raw with each other, what I saw in myself as a player and what the organization saw in myself as a player. And it kind of just aligned.
“That meeting really sat well with me. We’re very personable people, and to have those guys come into my house and tell me how much they want me meant a lot to me.”
Added O’Connell: “They said they wanted this to be a partnership.”
Plus, Eflin had heard good things about the Rays for a long time, about their competitiveness and camaraderie. There were positive reviews from former Phillies teammates who had been with the Rays previously, such as Matt Moore and Jeremy Hellickson; and Charlie Morton, who joined the franchise later.
Elfin saw how they “absolutely elevated” the careers of so many pitchers over the years. He noted that he is eager to work with well-respected pitching coach Kyle Snyder and expects that “a little tinker here, a little tinker there is going to be a huge” help.
“You look at it, year after year, all these arms that come in and leave — you’re just like, ‘Where do they get these guys? Like, what is in the water in St. Pete?’” Eflin said. “So I’m excited to be a part of that process and to learn as much as I can while I’m here and be the best version of myself, on and off the field, as possible.”
The proximity to his family and offseason home, especially with the new babies on the way, “definitely” helped, Eflin said. (As likely did the lack of state income tax.)
The final component was the money.
The Rays had made the strongest initial offer and gave Eflin time and space to consider his options. At the end, with Eflin having a reported $40 million offer from Boston, Tampa Bay came up several million to match it, proving again how much Eflin was wanted. He will receive $11 million in 2023 and 2024, and $18 million in 2025.
“These guys,” Eflin said, “made it an easy decision.”
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