Phillies starter Zach Eflin will require surgery to repair the patellar tendon in his right knee, the team announced this afternoon. The procedure is expected to keep Eflin out of game action for six-to-eight months, manager Joe Girardi told reporters (including Todd Zolecki of MLB.com). That leaves open the possibility he could be ready for Opening Day in 2022, but it’s far from certain that’ll be the case.
Eflin has been plagued by knee issues for a large chunk of his career. Late in 2016, the right-hander underwent surgery to repair the patellar tendons in both knees. Afterwards, Eflin told Zolecki the procedures corrected chronic issues that had plagued him for more than a decade. He avoided knee troubles for the next few years, but issues with the joint cropped back up this summer.
The Phils placed Eflin on the injured list on July 20 because of patellar tendinitis. He was activated from the IL five weeks later but was scratched from what would have been his first start because of continued discomfort, followed shortly thereafter by a positive COVID-19 test. While Eflin recovered from the virus rather quickly, his rehab was delayed by continued knee pain that’ll apparently require another surgery to correct.
Losing Eflin for the rest of the season (and potentially a portion of next year) is a substantial blow for a Phillies’ team that has struggled to find reliable back-of-the-rotation innings in recent years. Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola make for a fearsome top two, and Philadelphia picked up Kyle Gibson at the trade deadline to bolster the middle of the rotation. But Vince Velasquez has been up-and-down for essentially his entire career, and offseason pickups Matt Moore and Chase Anderson haven’t panned out. (Anderson has already been released).
Those depth issues have forced the Phillies to bump Ranger Suárez into a starting role. Suárez had a fantastic season working in relief and has fared well so far in his attempt to carry that success over to the rotation. Through seven starts, the left-hander has a 1.71 ERA despite some struggles with walks, thanks largely to an elite 63.1% ground-ball rate. Suárez figures to continue getting turns for the remainder of the year, but Philadelphia will have to patch things together on the mound when they need a fifth starter.
Eflin, unlike many of the Phillies’ other starters, has been a measure of consistency in recent years. Excepting a spike in last year’s shortened campaign, the 27-year-old has generally posted league average strikeout numbers. But he’s one of the game’s best at limiting walks and he keeps the ball on the ground, allowing him to be reliably effective in spite of his hitter-friendly home ballpark. Eflin has posted an ERA between 3.97 and 4.36 in each of the past four seasons, including a 4.17 mark over 105 2/3 innings this year.
Last offseason, Eflin and the Phillies agreed on a $4.45MM salary for 2021 to avoid arbitration. He’ll likely be in line for a moderate raise on that figure this winter, as he enters his third and final year of arbitration eligibility. Assuming his recovery proceeds as anticipated, Eflin’s projected salary would still seem reasonable for his typically solid production. But he could be a non-tender candidate if he’s not progressing on schedule come November, as he’d reach free agency after next season anyhow.
Solidifying the back of the rotation was likely to be an offseason priority for the Phillies even before news of Eflin’s surgery. That’ll be all the more true now, although there’s little recourse but to rely on the internal options for the remainder of this season as they hope to mount a playoff push. The Phillies enter play tonight two and a half games back of the Braves in the NL East and two games behind the Reds and Padres for the National League’s final Wild Card spot.