Zach Eflin brought his wife and 2-month-old twin daughters with him to Fenway Park this weekend. The quartet was taking part in the Rays’ family trip — which, coincidentally, also served as a reminder of the venue that nearly became Eflin’s baseball home this offseason.
For the Red Sox, the opportunity to see Eflin at Fenway carries an offseason what-if. The 29-year-old righthander is 7-1 with a 3.30 ERA, a 24 percent strikeout rate, and a 3 percent walk rate. Baseball Prospectus pegs his value at 1.6 Wins Above Replacement, 10th best among big league pitchers this year — an All-Star-caliber performance.
How close was Eflin to becoming a Red Sox pitcher before reaching a three-year, $40 million deal with the Rays — the largest free agent deal in Tampa Bay history?
“I was very close, honestly,” said Eflin. “It’s hard to elaborate, but I was just so grateful to get an offer from both the Rays and the Red Sox. I was really close to coming here, to be honest with you.”
The Red Sox heavily pursued Eflin. Over seven years with the Phillies, Eflin owned a career 36-45 record and 4.49 ERA, but with superb control (a 4.8 percent walk rate in 2022) and a history of eliciting bad contact that suggested he had at least mid-rotation potential. According to Baseball Savant, while Eflin posted a 4.04 ERA last year, his strikeout and walk rates along with the quality of contact against him yielded an expected ERA of 3.27.
“He’s a strike thrower. We had him as arguably as good a command guy [as there is],” said Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder. “We recognized him to be a very good pitcher beneath the surface and we knew that he would significantly benefit from pitching in front of our defense. That’s no knock [on] Philadelphia. But I have the privilege of watching arguably the best defense in baseball every night.”
Eflin was thus a high-priority target of the Rays, who sent team officials to meet with the Orlando-area native at his home. The Sox — who met with him via Zoom, with chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom, manager Alex Cora, and pitching coach Dave Bush all taking part in the pitch — also had Eflin as one of their top pitching targets.
“Chaim’s left a lasting impression on our organization,” Snyder said of Bloom, who spent more than a decade with the Rays before coming to Boston. “It doesn’t surprise me that he would covet somebody that we would as well.”
The Sox made a three-year, $40 million proposal to Eflin. For a time, he seemed inclined to accept it — until the Rays offered the same amount, at which point a number of factors pointed him to Florida.
“It kind of ultimately took, for me to go to Tampa, they kind of needed to match what was here,” said Elfin. “But me and my wife would have loved to come here, to play here in this historic ballpark, with this fan base and stuff.
“But ultimately, I grew up a Rays fan. They showed interest from the very beginning, which was really cool. They made a personal visit to my house, which was awesome. And we were in the process of having twin girls and our on-demand support help was two hours away as opposed to a three-hour flight, which was huge for us.
“But at the end of the day, I was pretty close [to signing with the Sox]. Pretty close.
“I just honestly thought [Tampa Bay] was the best fit for me personally in my career and life. I wanted to go somewhere where we were going to win and learn. Both places are doing an exceptional job with that. But I think it ultimately came down to Kyle Snyder and the reputation that he has.”
Still, during the weekend visit to Fenway, the appeal of the Sox wasn’t lost on Eflin. He gushed about the atmosphere at Fenway and in Boston.
“The city itself, the fan base, it’s like a next-level Philly, which would have been awesome,” said Eflin. “But who’s to say I’ll never be here? I was just thankful that they appreciated my value as a person and a player to make me an offer, which was amazing.
“I didn’t think, ‘Same division, these guys are [both] coming at me.’ It was more so just talking with my wife and trying to decide what was best for our family. At the end of the day, we made the decision to go to Tampa and we don’t regret it one bit.”