Eflin comes full-circle with hometown Rays

Right-hander signs largest free-agent contract in franchise history

December 13th, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG -- first thought he might wind up with the Rays more than a decade ago. Leading up to the 2012 MLB Draft, the right-hander worked out at Tropicana Field and returned to his Orlando-area home feeling like he might get to play professionally for the club he grew up watching and cheering for.

Then Draft day came, and with the 25th overall pick, the Rays selected … infielder Richie Shaffer. Eflin went to the Padres eight picks later.

“I was a little heartbroken,” Eflin said. “But I think the guys have kind of made up for that.”

Eflin’s career came full circle on Tuesday, when he signed a three-year, $40 million contract with the Rays. The 28-year-old starter’s guaranteed total tops the five-year, $35 million pact signed by in 1997, as the biggest payout for a free agent in franchise history.

“Better than the [Draft] signing bonus,” Rays president of baseball operations Erik Neander quipped during Eflin’s introductory press conference at Tropicana Field.

The Rays tried to acquire Eflin at least twice before this, even after passing on him in the Draft. When the longtime Phillies starter became a free agent, Tampa Bay made him the club’s top offseason priority. Rays officials communicated that to Eflin’s agent, Tom O’Connell, last month at the General Manager Meetings.

But what prompted Tampa Bay to invest so much in a pitcher with a career 4.49 ERA and a history of knee injuries? Especially when they have more pressing offensive needs and a rotation that already includes Tyler Glasnow, Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs?

“We feel, for Zach, that the best is very much right in front of him,” Neander said. “We're very confident that's something that you all will see here over the next three years with us.

“Our greatest goal is to win a World Series. The best way to do that is to win by one. We made clear our desire to improve our run scoring, but if we can also improve our run prevention, that's certainly another way to go. And that's a big part of why we're here.”

Eflin spent parts of seven seasons with the Phillies, going 36-45 with a 95 ERA+. He doesn’t have a history of high strikeout totals, but the 6-foot-6 starter has averaged fewer than two walks per nine innings for two years in a row. He limited hard contact with a 31.1 percent hard-hit rate and an average exit velocity of 85.3 mph. And he features a six-pitch mix, primarily leaning on his sinker but increasing the usage of a curveball that produced great results last season.

“In an era of power and velocity, he's an artist,” Neander said. “The command is top shelf. It's a deep menu of pitches that we think -- there's a lot of different ways that him working with [pitching coach Kyle Snyder] and our group, there's a higher level of production that's right around the corner.”

Eflin saw a natural fit with Tampa Bay, too. He’d be about two hours away from home, no small matter for him and his wife Lauren with a 14-month-old child and twin girls on the way. He’d listened to rave reviews from former teammates  and , two former Rays he said he “grew up worshipping.”

Eflin said he feels “phenomenal” physically, with no issues in his knees, and he heard good things about the Rays’ ability to keep veteran pitchers healthy. He, too, believes his best years are ahead.

“I don’t think there's a better team or club that you can come to to get better,” Eflin said. “You see it year after year with all the arms that they bring in and produce. It's kind of a no-brainer for me to come here, because I don't believe I've hit my ceiling yet.”

Finally, the Rays showed Eflin something he was looking for in his first foray into free agency: He wanted to feel wanted.

Last month, a group of Rays officials that Neander jokingly described as a “small army” arrived at the Eflins’ house. They brought dinner from Outback Steakhouse, sat at the kitchen counter and explained why they were the right team for him.

Clearly, Eflin agreed.

“It's a lot more personal when you do it that way, and that sits well with my family,” Eflin said. “I've been a Tampa Bay Rays fan for a long time. I used to come here as a kid. Me and my buddies used to come to games. So this is really cool for me. These guys made it an easy decision.”