Zach Eflin's recent woes continue in loss to Chase Utley, Dodgers

Zach Eflin's recent woes continue in loss to Chase Utley, Dodgers


LOS ANGELES — The Phillies weren’t just beaten by Chase Utley and the Los Angeles Dodgers on Monday night.
They were manhandled.
The Phillies lost, 9-4, but it seemed a whole lot more one-sided than that as the home team pounded balls all over Dodger Stadium (see Instant Replay).
The Dodgers belted out 11 hits. Seven of them were for extra bases and four of those were homers, including one by Utley in his first game against his old team, and two by 22-year-old rookie Corey Seager.

The Phillies’ 22-year-old entry in this game did not fare as well.
Rookie right-hander Zach Eflin was tagged for seven hits and seven runs in just three innings. Five of the hits were for extra bases, including three homers. Eflin allowed a single, two walks, two doubles, a homer and a sacrifice fly on his way to falling behind, 5-0, in the first inning.
“He left everything out over the middle of the plate,” manager Pete Mackanin said.
Eflin is a sinkerballer who relies on getting groundballs. But in this start, he got just two groundball outs. All three homers he allowed were no-doubters to lefty hitters on elevated sinkers.
Eflin shut out the Pirates on three hits, no walks and six strikeouts on July 22. In three starts since then, he has been torched for 22 hits and 20 runs in 13 innings and his ERA has swelled from 3.40 to 5.54.
Basically, his struggles stem from a lack of command — too many pitches over the middle of the plate, as Mackanin said.
What happened to the command that allowed Eflin to shut out the Pirates?
“I don’t know,” Mackanin said. “When he’s got it, he’s good. When he doesn't have command, he's very hittable.”
Mackanin was asked if he sensed that Eflin’s mechanics were off.
The skipper said no.
But he did offer that the 6-foot-6 pitcher has recently had sore knees.
Eflin admitted to a little soreness, but said it was not the reason for his recent struggles. He said sore knees are something he deals with from time to time, has been for years.
“I’ve kind of always had different knees — kind of gone through it every single season,” Eflin said. “It’s more of a thing where sometimes it’s a little worse, sometimes it’s better than other days. You kind of just wake up and see how you feel. But, no, I don’t think it has affected me the past three outings.
“I’ve been working a little middle and up [in the strike zone] the past three outings. I’ve just got to get over that phase. It could be mechanical. It could be mental. It’s just one of those things where I’ve got to bear down and really execute the pitch. I haven’t been doing that and I’ve got to do a lot better job doing that.”
After good games and bad, Mackanin has never lost sight of the fact that the Phillies are a rebuilding team. As he likes to say, one of the missions of this season is “finding out about players.” In other words, who fits into the future and who does not. Sometimes you find out more about a player during the tough times. That’s why Mackanin is eager to see how Eflin bounces back after these three poor starts.
“It has to be tough on anybody,” said Mackanin, referring to Eflin’s three straight poor starts.
“One of the most important aspects of playing in the big leagues is you have to be mentally tough. We're looking for guys who are mentally tough and can overcome their struggles. When a hitter is in a slump, you try to minimize the length of that slump. When a pitcher is not pitching well, we want guys who are going to fight and battle their way out of it. We think he has that kind of makeup.”
Eflin has taken his recent struggles in stride. He has shown no outward signs of being upset. Unlike the great former Phillie Utley, who might sneak out of sight and smash a helmet when things are going bad, Eflin is a very even-tempered guy who smiles regularly.
But he says he has the mental toughness to battle back.
“Of course,” he said. “I’ve remained mentally tough throughout my whole career. I was brought up in a really good way by my father, realizing and looking at and analyzing situations and stuff. I’m pretty good on that. I really don’t get too down on myself. I think about a loving family at home that are all healthy and safe, so I kind of look at it that way. I really kind of thank God more that I’m here and I kind of stay away from being upset or disappointed or being mad.”
Maybe that outlook will help Eflin in his next start against Colorado at home.
It would also help if he got the ball down and rolled some groundballs.

Braves' signing of Will Smith has ripple effect on NL East and free agency

Braves' signing of Will Smith has ripple effect on NL East and free agency

Two weeks into free agency, the Braves have been more active than any team. Their biggest move was Thursday's signing of left-hander Will Smith, the top reliever on the market.

Prior to that, Atlanta brought back three of its own would-be-free-agents in right fielder Nick Markakis, catcher Tyler Flowers and reliever Darren O'Day.

The Smith signing is definitely the highest impact move of the bunch and makes the Braves a lot better. His deal is for a reported $40 million over three years. He is coming off his first All-Star appearance and back-to-back stellar years. He was 6-0 with 34 saves and a 2.76 ERA for the Giants in 2019, he struck out 96 in 65⅓ innings and he held lefties to a .157/.167/.229 batting line. Read that again ... 157/.167/.229!

Bryce Harper will face Smith many times over the next three years. The teams meet 19 times per season and you'd figure Smith will face Harper in a high-leverage situation whenever the game is late and close. Harper is 0 for 8 with five strikeouts lifetime against Smith. Smith will also factor into plenty of matchups with Juan Soto.

The Braves tried various closing formulas in 2018. They went through Arodys Vizcaino, A.J. Minter, Luke Jackson, Shane Greene and Melancon. For most of the season, the ninth-inning was a weakness, yet the Braves still won 97 games. 

Melancon will return in 2020 and could still close, but Smith is another very good option if he falters. It would probably make more sense for the Braves to try to use Melancon as the ninth-inning guy to free up Smith for high-leverage spots against lefties in the eighth or even seventh inning.

Why did Smith sign so quickly? For a couple reasons. First, $40 million over three years is a sweet contract for a reliever. He may not have beaten this deal even by waiting. But his representatives also effectively leveraged Thursday's qualifying offer deadline against teams interested in Smith. There was at least a threat that Smith could accept the Giants' one-year, $17.8 million qualifying offer if a better alternative was not presented by Nov. 14. That created more urgency on the Braves' part.

Removing Smith's name from the free-agent relief market further depletes an already light market. The top two potential free-agent relievers were set to be Smith and Aroldis Chapman, but Smith is a Brave in mid-November and Chapman returned to the Yankees on a new deal.

With Smith off the board, the top free-agent reliever might be longtime lefty starter Drew Pomeranz. In 25 appearances with the Brewers after a midseason trade, Pomeranz had a 2.39 ERA and 0.91 WHIP with 45 strikeouts in 26⅓ innings. He's generated a ton of buzz this winter and should also find a lucrative multi-year contract.

Chris Martin, Sergio Romo, Will Harris, Daniel Hudson and Dellin Betances are the best free-agent bullpen arms left. There are also trade candidates like Ken Giles, Raisel Iglesias and maybe Ian Kennedy if the Royals eat most of his remaining $22.5 million.

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Why J.T. Realmuto’s contract extension with the Phillies might take some time

Why J.T. Realmuto’s contract extension with the Phillies might take some time

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — The Phillies went into this offseason prioritizing a contract extension for All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto.

Even as the Phils pursue pitching and possibly a third baseman, they are quietly trying to hammer out that extension, according to multiples sources. 

But the extension might not come before the New Year. It might not even come before the opening of spring training.

Don’t panic. Realmuto solidified his status as the top catcher in baseball by winning the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards in 2019. The Phillies very much want to prevent him from becoming a free agent after next season and Realmuto, for months, has professed his affection for the Phillies and Philadelphia as well as his desire to stick around.

“Everything I’ve experienced in Philadelphia has been awesome so I wouldn’t be opposed to spending the rest of my career there,” he said in July. 

In order to preserve some payroll flexibility for the 2020 season, it is possible that the Phillies could sign Realmuto to a one-year contract this winter — he projects to make about $10.5 million in his final arbitration year — then subsequently finalize a separate multi-year extension that would kick in at the start of the 2021 season. The extension could be finalized and announced later this offseason or even in spring training.

Realmuto, who turns 29 in March, is projected to get an extension of four or five years with an average annual value of $20 million or more. By starting the extension in 2021, the AAV of Realmuto’s deal would not count toward the 2020 payroll and thus affect luxury-tax calculations. For tax purposes, the Phillies currently have about $116 million committed to nine players for 2020. Even with Realmuto’s 2020 salary still to be determined and raises due to a number of other players, the Phils do not appear to be in jeopardy of reaching the $208 million tax threshold in 2020 and have the room to pursue top free agents. But pushing Realmuto’s extension back to 2021 would allow for even more room under the tax threshold and that could come in handy this winter or even at the July trade deadline.

After the 2020 season, the Phils will gain some payroll flexibility as Jake Arrieta’s $25 million AAV and David Robertson’s $11.5 million AAV come off the books just as Realmuto’s extension would kick in.

The Phillies have never exceeded the tax threshold. Teams exceeding it for the first time pay 20 percent on every dollar they go over. Last month, owner John Middleton offered his thoughts about exceeding the tax threshold.

“I’m not going to go over the luxury tax so we have a better chance to be the second wild-card team,” Middleton said. “That’s not going to happen. I think you go over the luxury tax when you’re fighting for the World Series. If you have to sign Cliff Lee and that puts you over the tax, you do it. If you have to trade for Roy Halladay and sign him to an extension and that puts you over the tax, you do it. But you don’t do it for a little gain.”

Other than expressing a desire to extend the relationship, Phillies general manager Matt Klentak has steadfastly declined comment on the status of talks with Realmuto on a possible extension. Klentak continued that tack at this week’s GM meetings.

“We love J.T.,” Klentak said. “Every week, it seems like he’s winning a new award. What all of that is doing is confirming what a lot of us have felt for a long time. This guy is the real deal. He can do everything. At some point in this offseason, we will likely talk to him about trying to keep him in the fold beyond his control years and hopefully we’ll line up on something.”

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