When I first saw that Tampa Bay had signed pitcher Zach Eflin to a contract, I wasn’t surprised. But, when I saw they gave him the biggest free agent contract in Rays history, I was quite confused. It turns out that I wasn’t alone in this reaction; Michael Baumann of FanGraphs agreed that the signing would puzzle “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.”
Yes, paying $40 million over three seasons seems a bit puzzling for a guy that’s been a relief pitcher for the past season or so. But, keep in mind he was only in the bullpen in 2022 to hasten his return to the big league club. Eflin is, in fact, usually a starting pitcher. (He hurt the ‘fat pad’ in his knee, which is a term neither I nor Baumann had heard of before the writing of his article; it’s right behind the knee cap). To be fair, $40 million isn’t that bad for a starting pitcher, and $13.33 million per year is fair for a 1.5 WAR pitcher, which if you look up 1.5 WAR pitcher in the dictionary, Eflin’s picture is right there. It’s also true that even splitting the year between the bullpen and rotation in 2022, Eflin was worth 1.4 FanGraphs WAR. So, on a pure dollars-to-WAR level, this signing makes entirely too much sense for a guy you plan to move back into the starting rotation.
But, these are the Tampa Bay Rays we’re talking about here. The previous record for a free agent deal was Wilson Alvarez in 1997, who got five years and $35 million, and proceeded to suck for the vast majority of that deal. Fortunately, I don’t see Eflin ever reaching that level of suckitude. In fact, to live up to this contract in 2023 terms, Eflin just has to be exactly what he’s been. But, this is Tampa Bay we’re talking about. They never spend money unless they see something the rest of the league doesn’t. Apparently, they value him a lot more than that.
While Eflin doesn’t strike out many batters, he also limits hard contact. His spin rate and velocity numbers are underwhelming, but relying more on his curveball in 2022 showed signs that he may actually already be better than he’s ever been. Adding a cutter to his arsenal may have helped, too. With the slider now his fourth pitch and a change-up still in his back pocket, Eflin may prove to be a lot more than a #4 starter going forward. But, considering what he’s already been, the Rays aren’t taking that much of a risk. Eflin is about as safe of a pitcher as you’re going to find.
What’s actually even more puzzling is that Eflin stands to make less in 2023 than he would have with the Phillies had he accepted his half of the mutual option. That’s right; the Phillies wanted him back, but he decided to see if he could get a better guarantee. To be fair, Eflin still wins here with the guaranteed extra year. But, Mike Clevinger got $12 million in a prove-it deal, coming off a very bad year, so in this free agent market, this looks like a relative steal for the Rays. Granted, Clevinger is a lot more exciting if he can get right, but Eflin is going to chug along just fine. Anything else the Rays get is a bonus.
Remember that the Rays got 31 strong starts out of a broken down Corey Kluber. A healthy Eflin could do even better than the 3 WAR they got from Kluber. One 3 WAR season and Eflin’s contract essentially is already paid for in full. Heck, this is a signing that the Red Sox could’ve made and looked smart for; instead, the Rays got perhaps the best value for a pitcher that any team will this off-season. This may be the best free agent signing the Rays have ever made, and remember how good Charlie Morton was in 2019! Eflin is a great signing, for sure.