The first ten years of the Tampa Bay Rays franchise were, to put it kindly, a disaster. The team (known then as the Devil Rays) never won more than 70 games and finished dead last in the American League East in nine out of ten seasons. Then, after the 2007 season, the franchise dropped the “devil” and became the Tampa Bay Rays. Since then, they’ve been one of the most consistently good teams in baseball, with eight trips to the postseason and two World Series appearances.
Of course, the name change is just a coincidence. The Rays have put together several strong rosters, often relying on superb pitching to keep games close. But until just now, they had never spent lavishly on a free agent.
At least, it’s a lavish purchase for them. The Rays agreed to a three-year, $40 million deal with pitcher Zach Eflin, who’s spent his entire seven-year career with the Philadelphia Phillies. Tampa Bay was the only remaining franchise that had never committed more than $35 million to a free agent — making Eflin’s $40 million contract a record-setting deal for the club.
Before Tampa Bay’s inaugural 1998 season, it gave pitcher Wilson Alvarez a five-year, $35 million contract. That remained the team’s richest free agent deal for nearly a quarter century. Eflin turned down a $15 million mutual option for a $150,000 buyout from the Phillies, instead joining another strong Rays rotation.
Eflin is coming off a 3-5 season with a 4.04 ERA, striking out 65 in 75 2/3 innings. He pitched 4 1/3 innings in the World Series, giving up no runs, though the Phillies lost in six games to the Houston Astros.
While Eflin’s deal is a record for Tampa Bay, it’s almost a pittance by MLB standards. Bryce Harper signed a 13-year, $330 million contract to join the Phillies, leaving the Washington Nationals to do so. That’s more than eight times what Eflin will make.
Three other players have inked free agent deals worth at least $300 million, including Corey Seager (Texas Rangers, $325 million), Gerrit Cole (New York Yankees, $324 million), and Manny Machado (San Diego Padres, $300 million). Tampa Bay also lost an AL Cy Young Winner in David Price, who signed a seven-year, $217 million to join the AL East-rival Boston Red Sox in 2016. Perhaps the Rays can take solace in the fact that Price had an uneven and disappointing four years in Boston.
Now, the Rays are looking ahead to the future — and they’re willing to spend big (well…relatively big) to make it happen.