The Big Maple Heads to Boston

As the hours wound down on MLB’s collective bargaining agreement, the Red Sox took one last flier, signing left-handed pitcher James Paxton to a one-year deal worth $10 million, with a two-year, $26 million club option.

Never a bastion of durability — he’s never thrown enough innings in a major league season to qualify for the ERA title — Paxton’s had a particularly rough couple of seasons. In 2020, he underwent surgery to remove a peridiscal cyst, a type of spinal lesion, but last year’s late July start gave him enough time to be ready for the season. Unfortunately, when the season actually did get underway, he was missing about 3 mph from his fastball and suffered from significant soreness in his elbow. That soreness was diagnosed as a flexor strain, but there was no ligament damage found at the time. The New York Yankees had initially been hopeful that he’d recover to at least make a postseason appearance, but further setbacks prevented him from returning.

After signing with his old team, the Seattle Mariners, the 2021 season didn’t go any better. It only took five batters for an injury to knock Paxton out for the year, requiring Tommy John surgery. This can’t be described as anything but a brutal setback for a player who, from 2016-19, had finally settled into a pattern of being mostly healthy if used carefully.

Having had surgery in April, Paxton will not be available for innings at the start of the 2022 season, which explains the structure of his deal with Boston. The base contract is a $6 million salary for 2022, with the two-year, $26 million club option covering ’23 and ’24. If the option is declined after this season, Paxton will have to decide whether or not to exercise the conditional player option, either taking $4 million for 2023 or becoming a free agent. Those salary figures aren’t out of whack for a player who carries the risks involved here. Last offseason, Corey Kluber was coming off two injury-ruined years, but no Tommy John surgery, and got a one-year $11 million deal with the Yankees.

The ZiPS projection for Paxton is for entertainment purposes only. While we have a lot of historical information about recovery from Tommy John surgery at this point, Paxton’s health record isn’t particularly clean and tidy otherwise.

ZiPS Projection – James Paxton
Year W L S ERA G GS IP H ER HR BB SO ERA+ WAR
2022 6 5 0 4.47 17 17 86.7 86 43 13 30 95 105 1.4
2023 5 5 0 4.66 15 15 77.3 78 40 12 28 82 101 1.1
2024 5 5 0 4.88 15 15 75.7 78 41 12 28 79 96 0.9

The projected 2022 performance seems consistent with the contractual terms; ZiPS doesn’t know precisely what Paxton’s recovery schedule is, and I’d take the under on the 17 starts. To get an idea of how fair two years, $26 million would be, let’s somewhat arbitrarily imagine what a successful 2022 return would look like. Let’s call it 15 starts, 75 innings, with home runs, walks, and strikeouts consistent with Paxton’s rates from 2016-19.

ZiPS Projection – James Paxton (Theoretical)
Year W L S ERA G GS IP H ER HR BB SO ERA+ WAR
2023 6 4 0 4.03 15 15 76.0 71 34 9 25 86 117 1.6
2024 5 4 0 4.14 14 14 67.3 64 31 9 23 74 113 1.3

ZiPS still wouldn’t bank on 130 or 140 innings given his health. Assuming $7.4 million per projected WAR in 2023 and 3% growth, that comes to about two years, $22.4 million.

To get an idea of just how much injuries have affected Paxton, let’s do a quickie ZiPS Time Warp, going back to after the 2017 season. Let’s give Paxton his first ERA-qualifying season and let the chips fall from there.

ZiPS Projection – James Paxton (Theoretical)
Year W L S ERA G GS IP H ER HR BB SO ERA+ WAR
2018 12 8 0 3.22 29 29 162.0 139 58 16 45 185 128 3.5
2019 10 7 0 3.38 26 26 143.7 126 54 15 42 159 122 2.8
2020 10 7 0 3.57 26 26 141.0 127 56 15 42 151 116 2.5
2021 9 7 0 3.56 24 24 131.3 118 52 14 39 141 116 2.4
2022 9 6 0 3.59 23 23 123.0 111 49 13 37 133 115 2.2
2023 8 6 0 3.68 21 21 115.0 105 47 13 36 125 112 1.9
2024 7 6 0 3.80 20 20 106.7 99 45 13 34 115 109 1.7

That’s a healthier version of Paxton, though I’m hardly making him into Old Hoss Radbourn. If I project out the rest of his career on those terms, he still ends up around 150 wins with an ERA of 3.85 and 30.1 career WAR. Hopefully, there’s still time for his body to find a way back to that path.

One thing I’m wondering — and it’s something that won’t be answered for months, for obvious reasons — is whether this might actually be it for Boston’s rotation work this offseason. The team’s 2021 largely worked out because the rotation, made up almost entirely of pitchers with long injury histories, remained incredibly healthy. It feels a bit like the Red Sox are poised to try that again next year. Chris Sale will start the season in the rotation this time, but given his recent health record, one can’t be super confident in his availability, and both Paxton and Boston’s other free agent signee, Rich Hill (whose deal Ben Clemens will address soon), have long had issues of their own. Nathan Eovaldi, Sale, Nick Pivetta, and Hill seem likely to be the front four to start 2022, with Michael Wacha and Tanner Houck competing for the final spot and Paxton occupying Sale’s 2021 role as the hopefully-conquering late-season hero. ZiPS doesn’t have a ton of confidence in Connor Seabold, but if he’s pitching well in Triple-A, I imagine he’ll be in the mix for starts at some point as well.

Even if the Red Sox do go after another free agent pitcher, though, who really moves the needle at this point? A lot of the better pitchers available have already signed, and Clayton Kershaw, who has to be considered an injury risk as well, seems more likely to end up in Texas than Boston if he doesn’t return to the Dodgers. Carlos Rodón is interesting — though likely not as safe as Kevin Gausman or Robbie Ray would have been — but there’s a big drop-off after that.

In any case, those answers will come later. For now, James Paxton has signed a deal with the Red Sox that I find to be fundamentally fair, giving him both some guaranteed cash now and an employer with a lucrative interest in him being a healthy contributor in 2023 and ’24. If the Red Sox make a big score, it also means that Paxton will hit the market after 2024 with a last chance to land a big contract and claw back the wins that his health has stolen from him. That’s an outcome worth rooting for.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

33 Comments
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mrdog61member
1 year ago

Where can I get Statcast info on Old Hoss Radbourn?

sadtrombonemember
1 year ago
Reply to  mrdog61

The “Old” in Old Hoss Radbourn seems appropriate in more ways than one here.

According to Wikipedia, he was the first person ever photographed giving the middle finger to someone. Now that’s a legacy to be proud of.

hombremomento
1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Arguably more legendary than his 60 win season

Sonny Lmember
1 year ago
Reply to  mrdog61

Old Hoss’s curveball was +1 hindquarter of a foal in vertical drop, but he could tweak it to throw a sweeper that broke the width of a Burgundy barrel.

John Elway
1 year ago
Reply to  Sonny L

LMHAO!!!!!!!!!

darren
1 year ago
Reply to  mrdog61

It’s kind of limited since they could only calculate exit velocities by having guys on horses riding alongside batted balls to get velocity readings.

Josermember
1 year ago
Reply to  darren

Yeah, it wasn’t until they switched to guys on motorcycles that the readings became at all accurate.