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Phillies get tricky with roster manipulation, option Zach Eflin to minors

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Phillies starter Zach Eflin pitched well on Friday against the Padres in San Diego, limiting the opposition to two runs on five hits and a walk with eight strikeouts in six innings. That bumped his ERA on the season down to 3.57. Oddly, though, Eflin was optioned to Triple-A Lehigh Valley on Saturday, creating room for the Phillies to add recently-acquired slugger Justin Bour to the 25-man roster.

On the surface, the move seems perplexing. The Philies, however, got fancy with roster manipulation, as Matt Gelb of The Athletic explains. The team has off-days on each of the next two Mondays and a double-header against the Mets on Thursday. Normally, a player optioned to the minors has to spend at least 10 days there. Per MLB rules, a team can add a 26th man to the major league roster for doubleheaders, even if that player was optioned and hadn’t spent 10 days in the minors. The Phillies are giving themselves an extra position player by making Eflin their 26th man. They will bring him back to the majors to start one of Thursday’s game, then send him back to the minors to finish out his 10 days. Eflin won’t actually miss a turn through the rotation.

Eflin will miss out on nine days of major league service time and about $20,000, Gelb notes. Tom O’Connell, Eflin’s agent, said yesterday, “Today was an understandably extremely tough day for Zach. While this transaction on the surface seems purely administrative, it caught us by surprise and is tremendously disappointing. Major-league starters have a strict routine that they adhere to that allows them to be successful; this roster move affects that. While the club may feel that they are doing what’s best for the organization, they also lose sight of the human element and how it will affect the player.”

GM Matt Klentak said, “We’ve talked all year about the importance of value at the margins. We’re tied for first place. It’s the middle of August. You never know when an extra bench spot or bullpen spot will be the difference in a game. One game might make all the difference. So that’s why we did it.”

Obviously, this is a crummy situation for Eflin, but the Phillies aren’t doing anything that isn’t allowed by MLB rules. The Phillies, in fact, did the exact same roster manipulation with Nick Pivetta in August last year. Pivetta struck out 11 Padres over five innings, then was optioned to the minors. They brought him back up as the 26th man for a doubleheader, then sent him back down to finish out his required 10 days before calling him back to the majors. In both cases, neither Eflin nor Pivetta had any say, so the Phillies can do what they want without any obligations. It is unclear if the Phillies ever made up the lost service time and money to Pivetta and nor is it clear if they plan to with Eflin. It would be a nice gesture if the Phillies gave back the $20,000 or so during upcoming contract negotiations plus an approximation of what the lost service time would cost the players. There is no reason for the Phillies to antagonize their young players, who could be significant contributors for years to come, by getting fancy with roster manipulation.

The bigger picture is that the players’ union should consider all of the ways teams can exploit players — particularly young players — to gain their marginal advantages. This is one example and it has real-world impacts. The current collective bargaining agreement expires on December 1, 2021. There has already been significant strife between the owners and the MLBPA. This type of roster manipulation could be one more issue added to the docket when the two sides sit down to negotiate in three years.

Young Blue Jays say they aren’t intimidated by top seed Rays

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) When the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays opened the pandemic-delayed season a little over two months ago, there was little to indicate the AL East rivals might meet again to begin the playoffs.

While the Rays launched the truncated 60-game schedule with expectations of making a strong bid for their first division title in a decade, the Blue Jays generally were viewed as an immensely talented young team still years away from postseason contention.

Tampa Bay didn’t disappoint, shrugging off a slow start to go a league-best 40-20 and claim the No. 1 seed in the AL playoffs that begin Tuesday.

Lefty Blake Snell, who’ll start Game 1 of the best-of-three wild-card series against Toronto at Tropicana Field, also isn’t surprised that the eighth-seeded Blue Jays earned a spot, too.

The Rays won six of 10 games between the teams during the regular season, but were outscored 48-44 and outhomered 17-11.

And while Toronto (32-28) lacks the playoff experience Tampa Bay gained last season when the Rays beat Oakland in the AL wild-card game before falling to Houston in the divisional round, the Blue Jays are building with exciting young players such as Cavan Biggio, Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

“They’ve got a lot of young guys who can ball over there,” Snell said. “It’s going to be fun to compete and see how we do.”

Rays defensive whiz Kevin Kiermaier said Tampa Bay, in the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the second time franchise history, will not take the Blue Jays lightly.

“We know we’re playing a real good team,” Kiermaier said. “It’s not going to be easy, regardless of what a team is seeded.”

The Blue Jays, who’ll start right-hander Matt Shoemaker, aren’t conceding anything.

Bichette said he and his teammates respect how good Tampa Bay is, but are not intimidated by facing the No. 1 seed.

“I would say that we didn’t care who we played. I would say that we didn’t mind playing Tampa, that’s for sure. We’re familiar with them. We’ve played them well,” Bichette said.

“I think we’re confident in our ability against them. Our talent matches up well,” Bichette added. “We think if we play well we’ve got a good chance.”

NO FANS

The stands at Tropicana Field will be empty, leaving players to wonder what the atmosphere will be like for the playoffs.

Tampa Bay routinely rank at or near the bottom of the majors in attendance, but usually pack the stands in the domed stadium during the postseason.

“It will be different,” Bichette said. “Normally when you think of your first postseason you think 40,000, you think about not being able to think it’s so loud, stuff like that.”

The Blue Jays open the playoffs near where they hold spring training in Dunedin, Florida. It’s been a winding road for Toronto, which played its home games in Buffalo, New York, at the site of its Triple-A affiliate after the Canadian government barred the Blue Jays from hosting games at their own stadium because of coronavirus concerns.

CONFIDENT RAYS

Tampa Bay’s five-game loss to Houston in last year’s divisional round was a source of motivation during the regular season.

“It definitely lit a fire under everybody. It really showed us we belong. … We gave them a tough series,” second baseman Brandon Lowe said.

“We won the wild-card game. We belong in the postseason. I think that did a lot for us to understand that we should be in the postseason and we can go a lot farther. We know what to expect this time around. I think everyone in our clubhouse expects to be playing until the end of October,” he said.

CLOSE FRIENDS

Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash has the Rays in the playoffs for the second time. His close friend and former Rays third base and bench coach Charlie Montoyo is in his second year as manager of the Blue Jays, who last made the playoffs in 2016.

“Pretty special,” Cash said of his relationship with Montoyo.

“I really learned a lot from him being around him. The way he carried himself. His hand print is throughout this organization,” Cash added. “A pretty big impact and a positive one. … When they clinched I talked to him, we face-timed at 1:30 in the morning. I’m so happy for him.”