The Rays have interest in right-hander Chris Flexen, according to Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times. Topkin notes that familiarity with Tom O’Connell, Flexen’s agent who’s based in Tampa and also represents offseason signing Zach Eflin, could give the Rays a leg up in a potential pursuit of Flexen. The right-hander was released by the Mets last week shortly after the club acquired him from the Mariners alongside Trevor Gott.
Flexen came into the 2023 season looking like a solid swingman or a serviceable back-end rotation arm. Across the 2021 and 2022 campaigns, Flexen posted a 3.66 ERA (8% better than league average by measure of ERA+) with 4.15 FIP in 317 1/3 innings of work. He appeared in 64 games during that time, starting 53 of them and finishing the other 11. While those results were certainly solid, his 16.5% strikeout rate left something to be desired even when paired with his excellent 6.8% walk rate.
Unfortunately, the wheels have come off for Flexen in 2023. In 42 innings this season, the righty has allowed a ghastly 7.71 ERA. That number surely has some bad luck factored into it.
Flexen’s BABIP is a whopping .350 this season, far above his career mark of .303, and he’s allowed 21.6% of his flyballs to leave the yard for home runs. Not only is that a huge spike over his career mark, which stood at 10% entering the 2023 campaign, but it comes as Flexen’s underlying batted ball data is largely improved over last year. His barrel rate has dropped from 9% last year to 8.1% in 2023. In addition, he’s generating more groundballs and soft contact than last year, while allowing fewer flyballs and less hard contact.
Of course, everything about Flexen’s difficult season can’t be simply chalked up to bad luck. His walk rate has jumped all the way up to 9.7% while his strikeout rate has dipped to just 14.8%, leaving him with a K-BB% of just 5.1%, bottom 10 in the majors among those with at least 40 innings pitched this season. Of the nine pitchers below Flexen, just two are having an average or better season by measure of ERA-.
Still, given Flexen’s improved contact numbers and seemingly fluky home run rate, it’s not hard to see why the Rays would have interest in the 28-year-old. The club announced Saturday that right-hander Drew Rasmussen won’t return in 2023, joining Jeffrey Springs in missing the rest of the season. Lefty Shane McClanahan is also currently on the injured list, and the Rays have little in the way of depth beyond their current starting four of Tyler Glasnow, Eflin, Taj Bradley and Yonny Chirinos.
In addition, the Rays are well known for being able to maximize the performance of pitchers who had once been on the fringe of big league rosters. Jason Adam owned a career ERA of 4.71 in 78 1/3 innings with the Royals, Blue Jays and Cubs before joining the Rays in 2022. Since then, Adam has become a fixture at the back of the club’s bullpen with a 2.08 ERA and 3.39 FIP in 99 2/3 innings.
What’s more, Tampa has plenty of experience working with pitchers who have similar K-BB% issues to Flexen. Of the aforementioned nine players with lower K-BB% figures than the righty, two of them- Chirinos and Josh Fleming– are current Rays. Chirinos is having the best season of the entire group, with a 3.88 ERA in 58 innings. Fleming meanwhile, has by far the best advanced metrics of the group with a 4.62 xFIP and 4.80 SIERA.
Considering Tampa’s need for additional starting pitching depth and its success in working with pitchers who sport a similar profile to Flexen, it’s no wonder the Rays have interest in Flexen’s services. Of course, only time will tell if the sides will be able to come together on a deal. Flexen is still due $3.9M from the Mets on his current contract, meaning that any club who signs him would only be on the hook for a prorated portion of the big league minimum.