If you made me bet before the year on which of the Phillies major prospects would get to the majors first, I would not have bet on it being Zach Eflin. But with the injuries to Charlie Morton and Vincent Velasquez the Phillies needed a pitcher first. This year Eflin surpassed Jake Thompson in terms of readiness and positioned himself to take advantage of the first major league opportunity. Eflin will represent the first prospect of Wave 1 of prospects to reach the majors and will be the fourth prospect of the trade returns (behind Sweeney, Eickhoff, and Asher) to make the majors.
Eflin was a supplemental first round pick by the Padres in the 2012 draft as a big bodied projectable high school pitcher. Eflin sat in the low 90s and would bump his fastball up into the mid 90s. Eflin had one of the best changeups among the high school arms and he matched it with an inconsistent slurvy breaking ball. For the first few years of pro ball Eflin was much of the same. The Padres scrapped the slurve for a short slider, but otherwise he threw in the low 90s, he threw a lot of strikes, and he kept the ball in the ballpark. Eflin did not miss a lot of bats, but continued to put up a good ERA despite pitching in some very positive environments for hitters.
In the winter of 2014-2015, Eflin was shipped off to the Dodgers in a trade for Matt Kemp and then was immediately flipped along by the Dodgers to the Phillies along with Tom Windle for Jimmy Rollins. To start his career in the Phillies organization Eflin was more of the same. He missed even fewer bats and his lack of a breaking ball was glaring. In the middle of the summer he went to pitch for Team USA. About the same time Eflin came back from that break he began to remake what he looked like as a pitcher. He had made a request to the Phillies to bring back his curveball, and they worked with him, and he finally unveiled it in August of 2015. Along with the curveball came a heavier usage of his four seam fastball which saw him had to both ends of his velocity range. Down the stretch for Reading he was able to both raise his strikeout rate and lower his walk rate, but hard contact was still a problem.
The 2016 season has seen Eflin launch off of the end of his 2016 season. While pitching as the youngest pitcher in the International League he has put up a career high in K% (20.9%) and a career low in BB% (4.2%) as well as a HR/9 second only to the 0 he allowed in 7 innings of rookie ball. It has been a bit of weird season with Eflin giving up 4 or more runs in 4 of his 11 starts while holding opponents to 0 or 1 runs in the other 7 games. He has shown that he can battle through adversity and continue through rough innings and starts where he just does not have his best stuff.
Right now Zach Eflin will show a two seam fastball in the 89-92 range, and four seam fastball in the 92-94 range that he can reach up to 95-97 on. His changeup shows solid fade, but is more of an average pitch these days, as opposed to the plus it flashed earlier in his career. Eflin’s slider is improved over where it was a year ago and has bigger break and he can use it as a chase pitch. The curveball Eflin added last year is a mostly average pitch, but he can get slow and deliberate with it, making it more a long looping pitch that you can see coming. Eflin can throw all of his pitches for strikes. When he is at his best he will be able to command the fastball down in the zone. He has less feel for locating his secondary pitches. Right now, Eflin may struggle to work efficiently to put away major league hitters because no pitch on its own is dominant. However, if he is able to throw all 4 pitches (5 if you want to think about the fastball separately) he should be able to keep hitters off balance and in the ballpark. This should make Eflin more like a present #4 starter than where his ceiling may be.
It is key when evaluating Eflin to realize that he turned 22 only a few days after opening day. He is not finished developing, and this promotion to the major leagues does not change that. He will likely have some ups and downs over the next few seasons as he continues to grow. He will need to continue to turn his fastball control into fastball command. He needs to tighten up his curveball and gain more consistency throwing it both as a strike and as a chase pitch. He would do well to refind the plus changeup he had coming up in the minors to help keep hitters off balance. Right now he also does not throw all of his pitches with the exact same arm speed, a flaw major leaguers will pick up. This may read as a list of flaws, but Eflin has been really good so far and he is still really young. Right now if he just polishes up what he has he can be an innings eating back of the rotation starter. His ceiling is higher than that, and it could take a few years to reach it as he makes the minor improvements needed along the way. He may or may not stay in the major league rotation for the rest of the 2016 season, but he definitely has a chance to be part of the core that the Phillies are building.
Photo by Chris LaBarge