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The Largest Free Agent Signing in Rays History Goes To… Zach Eflin?

Baseball’s stingiest team just guaranteed 40 million dollars to a pitcher who has always struggled to find consistency, splitting time between the rotation and bullpen.

On the surface, this move can be a bit head-scratching. A team like Tampa Bay generally doesn’t even touch the free agent market and instead relies heavily on player development, but decided the one-time top prospect for Philadelphia was worth a three-year guarantee. This is the Rays were talking about here though, so you can already bet that there are going to be multiple angles that they must be looking at Eflin from. Let’s break them down.

For one thing, they nabbed the youngest free-agent starter off the market at 28 years old. The biggest bonus from that is the Rays will get guaranteed three years of Eflin’s prime years, according to average baseball age decline metrics. This falls into line with the Rays’ way of thinking and competing: they want to get the most cracks possible at the postseason with their winning core and want to keep their guaranteed money focused on players that are playing out their prime years. Tyler Glasnow and his recent short-term extension is a perfect example of how the Rays want to spend to keep their best players to try to win, but always have an eye on the future to make sure they can be flexible with their money for any possibilities.

Next, there’s the matter of Eflin and why the Rays like him so much. Joining a rotation that features flamethrowers and power pitchers, Eflin brings a balance that recently DFA’d Ryan Yarbrough brought for so many years. He’s a low-velocity, high-strike thrower. In no way will his pitch repertoire overpower hitters but it will induce lots of soft contact. His Baseball Savant page sums him up very well. When it comes to average exit velocity and hard-hit percentage, Eflin is among some of the most elite in the game, ranking in the top percentiles.

It’s also worth mentioning that he’s one of the best at not allowing free passes with his 4.8% walk rate last season. This too matches the Rays and their pitching philosophy. They were the best team in the majors at limiting walks this past season with a team 2.41 BB/9, and they now just added perhaps one of the best limiters of walks in baseball.

Eflin’s range of pitches has been evolving, much like his career has. A one-time starter that heavily relied on a four-seamer and slider, he has moved away from that mix to one much more suited to today’s modern game and with inducing soft contact, as he now relies on a sinker, cutter combo with a curveball. The year he scrapped the fastball and introduced his sinker happened to also be his best year in 2020 as he put up a 3.39 FIP over 59 innings. Eflin is one of those pitchers where his FIP is much more indicative of his performance than other surface stats. Since his best year in 2020, Eflin has been putting up FIPs that are always much better than his ERA, a consequence of playing with the Phillies’ defense and relying on them with his low strikeout, high contact profile. Now, he moves to Tampa Bay and a team that relies heavily on their defense to win games. I have a feeling that there will be a big difference in his stats with his time in Philly compared to Tampa Bay where he’ll now get the support of elite defenders like Taylor Walls and Jose Siri.

I wanted to finish off by comparing this deal to one that feels eerily similar to it from a couple of years ago. Back in 2018, Lance Lynn struggled as a starter and was moved to the bullpen for the Yankees’ playoff run and became a free agent the following offseason. Questions swirled around Lynn and which type of pitcher teams would get with him. Would they be getting the consistently above-average starter he was in his Cardinals days or the declining innings eater in his stints with the Twins and Yankees? It turns out he was neither of them. Lynn followed up the worst season of his career with an elite, 208-inning performance that netted a near 8 WAR and a fifth-place finish in the Cy Young voting. Lynn blew past everyone’s expectations and he did that to the tune of a 3-year/$30 million deal with the Rangers who showed they believed in his stuff as a starter and were rewarded mightily for it.

Compare this to Zach Eflin, and it’s almost uncanny how well his career trajectory lines up with Lynn. A starter in the early days of his career with the Phillies, Eflin showed promise with above-average, solid years before being moved to the bullpen this past season where he too found success. As a free agent, the question of what version of Eflin teams would be getting proposed themselves. A simply above-average starter who can eat innings, or a reliable reliever like he was for the Phillies in their 2022 postseason run? The Rays want something more. Much like the Rangers were hoping for with Lynn and were rewarded, the Rays identified an undervalued pitcher in Eflin and gave him a guaranteed three years like Lynn also was given.

Now, with the help of some of the top pitching minds in baseball, the Rays hope to see Eflin surprise many and elevate his game to a new height.

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