Rays believe Eflin's best days are on the horizon

Tampa Bay targeting one All-Star catcher, while eyeing internal options to replace Choi

December 6th, 2022

SAN DIEGO -- The Rays have not yet finalized their three-year, $40 million contract with right-hander Zach Eflin, but general manager Peter Bendix provided a simple reason why they were willing to offer Eflin the largest free-agent deal in franchise history.

“The best of him is in front of him,” Bendix said.

Eflin’s deal is still pending a physical, which is expected to take place after the Winter Meetings. When official, the signing will round out a rotation that already includes Tyler Glasnow, Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs, with further depth options in Luis Patiño, Yonny Chirinos, Josh Fleming and top prospect Taj Bradley.

“He’s got pretty good stuff, good command, good mound presence. All these different components add up into something that is maybe stronger than it would appear at first glance,” Bendix said Monday afternoon. “That was a case where we just saw somebody that we think could be a lot better than maybe what he's done so far and has just the best things in front of him.”

Some advanced metrics support that assessment. Eflin posted a 3.87 expected ERA in 2021 (compared to his actual 4.17 ERA) and a 3.27 xERA this year (compared to his actual 4.04 ERA). Each of the last three seasons, his FIP was about half a run lower than his ERA. With better defense behind him and a little better luck, it’s possible the 28-year-old’s performance could improve even without any significant adjustments.

Better health would also go a long way. Eflin has dealt with injuries in both knees since he was a teenager. He had season-ending surgery on his right knee in 2021 and missed nearly three months this year due to a right knee injury. Bendix acknowledged that concern, but believes Eflin might be through the worst of it.

“I think that he's learned how to manage that,” Bendix said. “He has a really good understanding of what he needs to do to take care of his body, and when he's healthy, we think he's a really good pitcher. … Maybe he's not throwing 200 innings, but it's unusual to find anybody who can throw 200 innings. But we think he's a starter that we can get out there as much as possible and that he's a high-quality pitcher.”

While they’ve experienced about as many injuries as any team in baseball the last few years, the Rays have also learned a few things about keeping veteran pitchers healthy, often going out of their way to schedule extra rest for their starters. The best example is Corey Kluber, who bounced back from three consecutive injury-shortened seasons to pitch 164 innings over a team-leading 31 starts this year.

“There’s no guarantee. … [Pitching] is an unnatural thing that leads to injuries. But we've also seen that our medical staff, our training staff, support staff, they put our players in position to be healthy and to be really good,” Bendix said. “I think that's something that with Zach, in particular, we're well set up for success there.”

Around the horn
• The Rays are interested in A’s catcher Sean Murphy, a highly sought-after trade target, a source confirmed. No move appears imminent, however, and it’s unclear if Tampa Bay will meet Oakland’s asking price. The Rays would only pursue a catcher if that player would be a significant upgrade over their existing options: Christian Bethancourt, Francisco Mejía and René Pinto.

• The Rays are expected to field offers for their quartet of top left-handed relievers, according to multiple sources. They could trade one, as it’s unlikely they’ll carry all four (Brooks Raley, Colin Poche, Jalen Beeks and Garrett Cleavinger) in their Opening Day bullpen.

• If they don’t acquire a first baseman to replace Ji-Man Choi, Bendix listed infielders Yandy Díaz, Isaac Paredes and Brandon Lowe, as well as prospects Curtis Mead and Kyle Manzardo as possible internal options. Aside from Manzardo, all of those players have mostly worked at other positions -- Díaz and Paredes at third, Aranda at second and Lowe at second. The Rays haven’t even brought up the idea of playing first base with Lowe yet, however.

“I think he'd be open to doing whatever helps the team, but at this point, he's a second baseman,” Bendix said. “There's just so many options, it's really difficult to know how it's going to play out, who's going to play where. But we thrive with having lots of different options, lots of different possibilities for how to put a lineup together.”