Derailing careers and shortening a player’s competitive window, suffering an injury usually never comes at a good time. Sometimes you’ll see a player use the phrase “gives me a chance to reset” or “ allows time to heal” or something along those lines, but in actuality, suffering an injury is never a good thing. In a sport where there is always someone trying to get your job, a player that gets injured runs the risk of not being able to reclaim his spot (unless his contract says he will).
Zach Eflin has suffered through some tough injuries. Coming into the majors with chronic knee pain, he pushed through to get himself to the top of the mountain before ultimately deciding that he could no longer tolerate the pain and had the surgery he knew he needed. Only 22 years old and on a team that was rebuilding at the time, he could afford to have the surgery since he knew that his place in the team’s future plans was more or less secure due to the pipeline of talent not exactly overflowing with candidates, nor was the team eager to use free agent dollars to buy an obvious upgrade over him. They knew what they had in him and were happy with where he was going.
“Absent the one tough start in Toronto, I thought he was pretty damn good,” [Matt] Klentak said. “What I like about his especially is that what he was in spring training is what he was at the minor-league level this year and is what he was when he came up to the big leagues. He didn’t really change anything. He knows his strengths, he knows what he’s good at.”
Since come back from that surgery, he has morphed into one of the more dependable starters for the team, getting out from the hazy cloud of instruction bestowed on him by Chris Young to get back to his sinker-balling ways of success.
He’s even gotten a little boost of velocity over the years, making his stuff that much more effective. There was a dip in his average pitch velocity this past season, but you wonder if some of that can be explained by the issues he was having with his knees. In addition to his newfound velocity over the years, he made some major strides with his control as well, leading the majors for walk rate among starters with at least 100 innings pitched (3.6%). In fact, he was one of four pitchers last year with at least 100 innings pitched, a walk rate below 5% and a strikeout rate of 22% or higher, the other three being Nate Eovaldi, Clayton Kershaw and John Means. The Phillies clearly have someone who can get strikeouts if needed while also limiting free passes, the two most foundational things a pitcher can control. On a team that needs solid pitching behind Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola, he’s been quite good in the games that he has pitched.
Therein lies the issue.
Last year, Eflin made his last start on July 16, succumbing to the pain once again in his knee, hitting the injured list and getting a platelet rich injection in his knee in the hopes that he would be able to help the team down the stretch while simultaneously avoiding surgery. After making some rehab starts in the minors, he looked all systems go before getting shut down again, eventually getting surgery on the knee yet again at the beginning of September. The initial timeline for recovery was 6-8 months, which the short end would mean he’s in spring camp and ready to go. The long end of the recovery would mean he’s looking at coming back in May. He’s still a part of the team’s plans for 2022, but what about beyond?
The team has to start asking itself this question. It shouldn’t be a matter of desire when it comes to keeping Eflin. Anyone in the league would love to have him as a member of their rotation. Instead, it’s going to start becoming a question of cost and that question can only be answered by the owner.
We are all aware of the fact that the team is still in a lockout and that one of the issues on the table is the competitive balance tax. The players want it raised a great deal, the owners....not so much. The owners are also asking for stiffer penalties for those that go over the tax number, in essence creating a cap for teams that value their future players more than their current ones. The Phillies have been one of those teams that have avoided going over the tax like the plague. Even though they have said repeatedly that the tax is not an issue, their actions tell quite the different story. Eflin is in his final year of arbitration and will be a free agent in 2023. He’s not expected to cost much this year (est. $6 million), but they now have a pitcher coming off of a second major knee operation in five years. Will they consider him worth investing in?
That brings us back to the original question: is this a make or break year for Zach Eflin? It’s easy to say that bringing him back, so long as he’s healthy, in 2023 and beyond is an easy decision since he’s not likely to cost a lot of money, but will the team be willing to commit to him and his assumed health? We’ve heard so much about “Oh, the money is there if we need it”, but when has that proven to be true? Were Eflin more of a proven commodity that dominates teams in his starts, the team might be more willing pony up the money, but again, they haven’t shown they’d be willing to go up near the tax with healthy players, let alone those who have had two major knee operations. Until it is proven, why should we believe that they will sink money into the team and go over the luxury tax, whatever that number is?
That’s what makes this season important for Zach Eflin’s future in Philadelphia. If he can prove himself healthy, throwing somewhere between 140-180 innings for the team and keep the gains he has made with his control and velocity, the decision should be an easy one. If he’s not able to do this, if his knees betray him yet again or, God forbid, something else were to be an issue, the team may not want to commit that money to him and would prefer to spend it elsewhere.
The only thing he can do is go out, prepare himself for the innings and do it. Should he be the same Eflin as before, an extension will be on the table. Let’s hope the team is wise enough to make this commitment.