Tampa Bay Signs This Eflin Guy

© Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

To paraphrase ILoveMakonnen, the Rays are winning, winning, winning again, so they’re spending, spending, spending. Tampa Bay threw its hat into the free agent ring Thursday night by inking right-hander Zach Eflin to a three-year, $40 million contract. That one of baseball’s most tightfisted teams would devote eight figures a year to a free agent comes as at least a mild surprise, and every time the Rays get their checkbook out some amusing historical facts bubble up to the surface.

Sure enough, the estimable Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times reached into his bag and extracted a real doozy: Eflin’s $40 million deal is the largest free agent signing in franchise history by total value. Turns out the previous record-holder was, and you might want to sit down, Wilson Alvarez, who signed for $35 million over five years in the first year of the franchise’s existence.

A $40 million contract isn’t that much by the standards of modern baseball; for that matter, it’s second-pairing defenseman money for the Tampa Bay Lightning. But the signing might surprise onlookers who last saw Eflin as the third-best reliever in a Phillies bullpen that wasn’t as bad as its reputation but still wasn’t exactly the 1990 Reds. So let’s see what $40 million worth of Zach Eflin gets you these days.

Of course, Eflin wasn’t always a reliever; he only moved to the ‘pen this summer to accelerate his return after bruising the fat pad in his knee in June. (This, incidentally, is how I learned there’s a part of the human knee called a fat pad.) The Rays will almost certainly return him to the rotation, where he pitched well in Philadelphia over parts of seven seasons. Since his first full season in the rotation, 2018, Eflin has averaged 19 starts and 106 innings per year, with an ERA of 4.16. His best season was the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign, where he made 11 starts (one of them a complete-game shutout), posted a FIP of 3.39, and struck out more than a batter an inning for the first (and only) time in his career. But on balance, he’s been a pretty reliable league-average starter.

If that’s all he is going forward, that ought to suit Tampa Bay just fine; Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen, and Tyler Glasnow are capable of spectacular stuff but three good pitchers does not a rotation make. And Eflin is a huge upgrade on the likes of Josh Fleming at the back of the rotation.

But as league-average pitchers go, Eflin is a pretty interesting one. As previously mentioned, the strikeout numbers aren’t anything to write home about; his career K% is 19.7%, and 2020 notwithstanding, he’s been within a couple ticks of that figure his entire career. His most common pitch is a sinker, and he can get a groundball, but he’s not exactly Framber Valdez; Eflin’s GB% ranked 69th out of 188 pitches who threw at least 70 innings last year.

But while it’s easy to make contact off Eflin, it’s difficult to make hard contact. Take a gander at the patriotic lollipops on his Baseball Savant page; the fire engine red ones are for average exit velocity, HardHit%, and walk rate. Eflin also grades out very well compared to the rest of the league in extension, which is not surprising because he’s 6-foot-6 and has arms like a spider crab’s. But he doesn’t throw particularly hard and his pitches don’t spin particularly quickly.

Eflin does have a wide, and always-evolving, repertoire of pitches. After being four-seamer-dominant early in his career, he went sinker-heavy in 2020, which coincided with his best season. This year, he introduced a cutter and started using his curveball more. Up until this season, the slider was his most common secondary pitch, and he’d rarely throw more than a few curveballs per game. This year, one out of every five pitches he threw was a curveball, and he threw six curves for every slider. He also basically stopped throwing his change-up once he moved to the bullpen, but that pitch 1) was never a big part of his game to begin with and 2) might come back anyway now that he’ll have to turn over a lineup again.

The knee injury prevented Eflin from building any kind of momentum with his reworked arsenal this season, but when he pitched in 2022, he pitched well. The Rays can probably count on some upside in taking a pitch-to-contact guy and putting him in front of a better defense than Philadelphia’s. Eflin is also the youngest starting pitcher in this free agent class by eight months, which means the Rays can sign him to a fairly long-term contract and still not buy any of his decline phase; Eflin will only be 31 when this deal ends, which greatly reduces the downside risk for the team. And if Mike Clevinger can get $12 million on the open market, $13.3 million per year for Eflin, who declined his half of a $15 million mutual option with the Phillies, is a steal.

Still, this being the Rays, it feels like there’s another angle. As much as the Rays have a reputation for being one of the savviest player development organizations in baseball, their record of getting an extra gear out of established pitchers is a mixed bag. They have plenty of success in developing bullpen arms, and they did well to get 31 starts out of Corey Kluber after a couple rough years from an injury perspective. And that could be important for Eflin, who’s not exactly injury-prone but does have a long list of nagging minor ailments — knee, back, oblique, blisters, you name it.

The guy I’d hold up as a great development success is Rasmussen, whom the Rays drafted in the first round in 2017, didn’t sign because of injury concerns, and then acquired anyway in the Willy Adames trade in 2021. Rasmussen’s had a 2.72 ERA in 205 innings, mostly out of the rotation, since joining Tampa Bay last year. And while you won’t find a pitcher who resembles Eflin less in terms of body type or movement profile, the two do have some things in common. Namely, they both have low strikeout and walk rates, and both — as Ben Clemens wrote in August — recently added a cutter while de-emphasizing their slider. Perhaps there’s something about Eflin the Rays think they can improve, and turn this contract into a bargain, rather than merely a good deal for both sides.

But even if not, that’s fine for Tampa Bay. Eflin is a solid mid-rotation starter, and the Rays locked him up for a reasonable rate and a reasonable amount of time. Would that teams like the Rays would make more signings like this.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
CC AFCmember
1 year ago

Gotta be an interesting experience going from extremely loud and cold Philadelphia and its fans to climate controlled, golf quiet Tampa

1 year ago
Reply to  CC AFC

Philly was 16th in attendance this year. Guessing there were plenty of golf quiet games there

1 year ago
Reply to  smb11488

“best fans” lol

1 year ago
Reply to  downbaddav

In fall 2021, there was an article celebrating the fact that the Rays were able to take the tarp off the upper deck for a playoff game because they finally got decent attendance.

1 year ago
Reply to  smb11488

That’s interesting, I definitely would have thought they would be higher. That’s a huge underperformance–the Mariners outdrew them, as did the Angels and Brewers.

That said, a 15K difference in average attendance is a lot. The Rays do not get good attendance at all.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

With 81 home games, the distance people will travel for a baseball game is very different than 8 Sundays for the NFL.

E.g., NC has more people than Michigan or Georgia, but probably couldn’t support a MLB team very well.

Tampa Bay has quite low population weighted density; Philly is very high in population weighted density.

The team in Florida that ought to be able to draw more by this metric is Miami.