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How Jimmy Rollins, Ruben Amaro Jr., and ‘an insider’ helped the Phillies land Zach Eflin

It's been more than six years since the Phillies started rebuilding. But if the plan finally reaches the postseason this year, the very first trade by Amaro will likely play a key role.

Phillies pitcher Zach Eflin has looked sharp in spring-training games and appears destined for a breakout season in 2021.
Phillies pitcher Zach Eflin has looked sharp in spring-training games and appears destined for a breakout season in 2021.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

A Dodgers scout called Zach Eflin in December 2014, welcomed him to Los Angeles and congratulated him on joining the organization. For two weeks — ever since a buddy awoke him with a 7:30 a.m. text message — Eflin had awaited assurance that he had been traded from San Diego.

Finally, he had confirmation. And an hour later, the phone rang again. It was Ruben Amaro Jr. — then the Phillies general manager — telling the 20-year-old Eflin that he had been traded again, this time from L.A. to Philly.

The Phillies’ rebuilding plan — after another playoff miss with an aging core — was officially underway.

“My head was kind of in a blender,” Eflin said. “I didn’t really know what was going on in my life, but once I got that phone call from Philly, I was so excited.”

The Phillies won 102 games in 2011, captured their fifth straight division title, and then unsuccessfully tried for three seasons to rebottle the magic. After a last-place finish in 2014, it was time to move on.

“We knew we weren’t going to be a contending team,” Amaro said last week. “That was the biggest difficulty. When you gather all of the folks in the baseball department and none of those folks believe that we were a contending team ... we made a consensus to do this rebuild.”

It’s been 10 years since the Phillies reached the playoffs as the rebuilding plan has proved rather slow. Amaro was fired near the end of the 2015 season, and the general manager who replaced him — Matt Klentak — was reassigned last fall.

More than five years later, the Phillies are still building toward October.

But if the rebuild finally reaches the postseason this year, Amaro’s very first trade will likely play a key role. He made six trades in 10 months, selling off every veteran he could. And the first player Amaro moved was Jimmy Rollins, the spark of the 2008 champions and then the city’s longest-tenured athlete.

Rollins had said at the end of 2014 that he would be back in 2015, but that was before Amaro’s front office conceded that the Phillies could no longer contend. Then 36 and wanting to play for a winner, Rollins agreed to go.

The Phillies had drafted him when he was 18, watched him grow over 15 big-league seasons, and never imagined him wearing another uniform. That was the cost of rebuilding.

“We just had to move forward and get the best return you can,” Amaro said. “But moving a guy like Jimmy is no joke because he’s so iconic to the organization.”

The Dodgers were World Series contenders in need of a shortstop. Amaro found his match. They presented the Phillies with a group of prospects to choose from, including players acquired from San Diego in a trade that was still pending a physical by Matt Kemp.

The Phillies reviewed the reports filed by their scouts, but they were trading away their all-time hits leader and the player who had transformed them into the team to beat. This was the start of an arduous rebuilding process, not an ordinary transaction. They needed something more.

“We had kind of an insider,” Amaro said.

Gorman Heimueller spent 15 years as an instructor in the Phillies’ farm system, but was at this point working for the Padres. He had the goods.

Heimueller told the Phillies to zero in on Eflin, whom the Padres had drafted out of high school in 2012′s first round. Eflin, Heimueller told his old team, had a lead-pipe sinker and the makings to pitch at the top of a rotation once he could master the slider. The former major-league pitcher loved Eflin.

It was enough of a sell for the Phillies to pull the trigger, acquiring Eflin and left-hander Tom Windle for Rollins.

“Pat Gillick was one of the best at trying to find out information about people. He was a heck of a teacher in that regard,” Amaro said of Gillick, the Hall of Fame general manager of the 2008 Phillies and then Amaro’s top adviser. “Ed Wade was the same way. We tried to utilize all of our resources from clubhouse kids to trainers to all types of people. But Pat had more connections in baseball than anybody. Gorm was a pretty good one.”

‘A part of my name’

Eflin had pitched in just 50 professional games before he received those two phone calls in December 2014. He had yet to graduate single-A ball, but learned that day that he had been traded in deals that included two players — Kemp and Rollins — who had combined for five All-Star appearances.

He was no longer the wide-eyed Florida high schooler who moved across the country to play baseball.

“They’re obviously two high-profile names, a part of my name now,” Eflin said. “I knew I wasn’t going to be coming over to Philly and not performing. I knew that I needed to perform. [Rollins is] the all-time Phillies hit leader. If we were going to trade away a guy like that, then whoever was coming in would have to perform.

“There was definitely a sense of ‘This is a real career now.’ Coming up with San Diego in the minor leagues, there was a reason for me being there, but once I was traded, it felt like someone wanted me more and that definitely put a lot more on that. That kind of turned my career around.”

» READ MORE: Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard could be on next year’s Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. Here are their cases.

Eflin’s debut with the Phillies in 2016 came a week after Rollins played his last major-league game. The right-hander was first slowed by knee problems and then by coaching, as former pitching coach Chris Young advised Eflin to try to overpower batters with four-seam fastballs. The pitcher reverted on his own to throwing the sinker that Heimueller had raved about and righted his career.

That is all in the past now. Eflin enters 2021 behind Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler after cementing himself last summer in the starting rotation. He has looked terrific this spring, pitching behind the two-seamer and slider that sold the Phillies.

Nola said last week that it’s just a matter of time until Eflin breaks out.

“I’ve been around the guy a little while now. Played with him a little while, and I know how good he is,” Nola said. “We all know how good he is. He throws hard, too, and just from a pitching standpoint, his pitches are plus pitches. The way he handles his business, the way he handles himself on the mound, his emotions, to me, he’s a top-tier guy.”

Amaro made four more trades after acquiring Eflin before he was fired in September 2015. He traded Marlon Byrd to the Reds, dealt Cole Hamels to Texas, paired Chase Utley with Rollins in Los Angeles, sent Jonathan Papelbon to the Nationals, and moved Ben Revere to the Blue Jays. Amaro received 13 players — most of whom were prospects — in those six trades.

“We probably didn’t get 100 pennies on the dollar for these trades that we made,” Amaro said. “We certainly felt like if we were going to move these guys, we would have to get some quality return out of it. ... I felt like we were starting the rebuild properly with the depth that we created. Not all of them worked out, and you can’t expect that to happen.”

Some of those players — such as Jerad Eickhoff, Nick Williams, and Nick Pivetta — played key roles in recent seasons. Others — such as Jake Thompson and Alec Asher — reached the majors but didn’t stay long. Jorge Alfaro was included in the trade to land J.T. Realmuto, while some — such as Windle, Jimmy Cordero and John Richy — never played for the Phillies.

Eflin is the last player remaining in the Phillies organization from the six trades Amaro made in his final 10 months on the job.

“It’s crazy to think about. It really is crazy,” Eflin said. “Even coming up through the minor leagues and looking back at our draft classes and seeing all the guys trickle out of the game and me still playing. It’s a crazy experience because you grew up with all of these guys, especially being 18, 19, 20 years old, and you develop a lot of close relationships. It’s crazy to know that I’m still here and I’m still doing it.”

Rollins started nearly 80% of the Dodgers’ games in 2015 but injured his right hand in September, lost his starting job, and was on the bench for four of the team’s five postseason games. Rollins was credited with helping to build the culture of a team that would win the World Series five years later, but he hit just .224 with a .643 OPS, both career lows to that point.

He tried to find footing with the White Sox in 2016 and the Giants in 2017 before retiring. He has spent time around the Phillies the last few seasons, but Eflin said they’ve never discussed the trade.

A case for the Hall

Later this year, Rollins will be on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time. Amaro said Rollins has a case.

Rollins compares favorably to Hall of Fame shortstops Barry Larkin and Alan Trammell and is one of nine shortstops since 1911 to total 2,400 hits. Six of the other eight are Hall of Famers while the other two — Omar Vizquel and Miguel Tejada — have tarnished their candidacy with off-field transgressions.

But for Amaro, it was Rollins’ defense — which he called underrated — that still stands out. He had the best fielding percentage among shortstops between 2000 and 2014 who played at least 1,000 games. He is the only NL shortstop to win four Gold Gloves since Ozzie Smith won 13 straight from 1980 to 1992.

Rollins, Amaro said, was what Dallas Green would call “a two-out shortstop.”

“It’s a guy who you can count on if there’s two outs and the bases are loaded and the game-winning run is at second or third,” Amaro said. “You can’t win championships without that guy at shortstop. Jimmy Rollins was that guy. If the ball was hit in his area and he caught it, you could put your head down because you knew the game was over or the inning was over or the out was going to be recorded. That ball was hit to him, you were Rollins’d. If he made contact with the glove, 99.9% of the time, that son of a gun was out.”

» READ MORE: Is Jimmy Rollins a Hall of Famer? ‘Absolutely,’ Charlie Manuel says

It was already an honor, Eflin said, to be traded for Kemp and Rollins. They’ve won Silver Sluggers and Gold Gloves and played in All-Star Games. Being traded for those players didn’t add pressure, but gave him expectations to meet.

His head was spinning in 2014 when Amaro called him. It turned his career around. And perhaps the phone call will become even more memorable if the player for whom he was traded becomes a Hall of Famer.

“Absolutely. That would be amazing just to have my name tied to a Hall of Famer,” Eflin said. “But at the end of the day, I think all of us are striving to be Hall of Famers. At least, that’s the way that I think. I think it would be an absolute honor for my name to be attached to his and vice versa if that ever comes to my point in my career. I was really excited to be traded for two high-profile names and knew I needed to pick up my game.”