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.