The free-agent market includes names like Patrick Corbin and Dallas Keuchel. There’s been chatter the Mets might be willing to trade Noah Syndergaard. There’s been chatter the Indians might be willing to trade Carlos Carrasco or Corey Kluber. But when the Mariners signaled their intent to take a step back this offseason, James Paxton became an obvious trade candidate, and quite possibly the best pitcher available. At least, the best pitcher available under realistic circumstances, since I don’t even know what it would take to pry Kluber away. Paxton rumors circulated for a couple of weeks, and now we’ve arrived at a conclusion, since Jerry Dipoto is hardly opposed to making moves in November. Paxton will be on his way to New York, where he’ll share a rotation with Luis Severino.
- James Paxton
Before too long, Paxton’s presence will be taken for granted, and attention will turn to the Yankees’ pursuit of still another starter in free agency. We’re seemingly always focused on what’s just in front of us, and what might be in front of Yankees fans soon is Corbin, or Keuchel, or somebody else. They seem likely to make another impact move to bolster the starting rotation. But for this moment, getting Paxton is a move to be celebrated. For a variety of reasons, Paxton has flown somewhat under the radar, but he’s a No. 1 starter, added to a team with a No. 1 starter.
One of the convenient things about obvious trade candidates is that it’s possible to write about them ahead of time, for cover. James Paxton has only just been traded today, but I said what I wanted to say about him a week ago. All of the same information applies. Paxton is 30 years old, and left-handed, and tall. He has two years of team control remaining, and he’s projected to earn about $9 million next season through arbitration. There are a lot of similarities between Paxton now and Gerrit Cole a year ago. The Yankees were interested in trading for Cole. They’ve wound up getting Paxton instead. In between, they won 100 games and lost to the Red Sox in the playoffs. It was a good season and a disappointing season at the same time.
For anyone unfamiliar with Paxton’s background, he was talented, and he was wild. In 2016, he had a mediocre spring and was demoted to Triple-A, but there, he was advised to make a mechanical change, lowering his arm slot from over-the-top to three-quarters. Better results came almost instantly. I’ll never forget the day Paxton returned to the majors. He started in San Diego and got obliterated, allowing eight runs in 3.2 innings. But he also threw hard, with plenty of strikes, and he struck out seven of 24 batters. I called the game “horrible and promising.” Paxton only got better and better.
Since there’s no reason not to, I’ll just re-post the data I put up last week. Here are a bunch of Paxton’s percentile rankings since 2016, among starting pitchers:
The lowest bar there corresponds to ERA-, which is also maybe the noisiest stat in the group. Paxton has been incredible when he’s been able to pitch. His performance has looked a lot like Carlos Carrasco’s. Here are some of Paxton’s projected percentile ranks, among starters, for 2019:
James Paxton throws hard, and he throws strikes, and he misses bats. He doesn’t allow that much loud contact. One reason he’s somewhat unknown, or underappreciated, is the fact he’s pitched for Seattle. The other reason is that he’s had injuries. The injuries are the lone blemish, as Paxton has never proven himself a workhorse.
The good news is that Paxton has never blown out his elbow. He’s also never blown out his shoulder. This past season, he made 28 starts. In 2016, he made 31 starts. But, there’s been a bad lat strain. There’s been a bad finger tendon strain. There’s been a bruised elbow. There’s been a bruised forearm. There’s been a strained forearm. There’s been a strained pec. There’s been lower back inflammation. String enough injuries together and a player ends up with a reputation. It’s a reputation that’s challenging to shake. Injuries like this aren’t always predictive, but Mariners fans weren’t shocked when Paxton had to miss a start.
That’s how this could conceivably backfire for the Yankees. If Paxton can’t keep himself on the mound, he’ll be a certain letdown. The same, however, would be true of anyone, and the Yankees might tell you many of Paxton’s injuries seem fluky. Again, he’s so far avoided the major red flags, and nothing went seriously wrong in 2018. Nothing went seriously wrong in 2016. Paxton should begin with a mostly clean bill of health, and the healthy version of James Paxton is an extraordinary starter.
In order to get Paxton, the Yankees did have to give away some youth. This is where we should look at things from the Mariners’ perspective. Paxton is 30 years old, with two years of control left. Sheffield, a lefty starter, is currently 22, with three big-league appearances. Swanson, a righty starter, is currently 25. Thompson-Williams, a lefty outfielder, is currently 23. The centerpiece here is Sheffield, who’s been ranked by Kiley McDaniel and Eric Longenhagen as baseball’s No. 54 prospect. There had been speculation the Mariners and Yankees might agree to a package including Sheffield and Clint Frazier, but Frazier’s concussion problems complicate things, to put it mildly.
The Mariners didn’t trade Paxton for a group of players down in the low minors. Sheffield is just about major-league ready. Swanson is also just about major-league ready. Thompson-Williams is a distant flier, but the two pitchers could make an impact within a few months of opening day. The Mariners are certainly worse than they were yesterday, but the hope is that the team can get younger without too deep of a reset. I don’t think the Mariners are looking for a five-year project. I think they’re looking for more of a three-year project. They’re hoping the return here can begin to pay off in short order.
Talking to Eric Longenhagen, he likes Sheffield’s raw stuff, and describes the secondary pitches as plus. The issue with Sheffield is control. It’s interesting to hear that Swanson is viewed as a back-end starter, or a multi-inning reliever. Sheffield and Swanson can both throw their heaters in the mid-90s. Sheffield has a little more zip, but it’s not as if Swanson is lacking. And here’s a comparison of their 2018 minor-league seasons, against advanced competition:
|Pitcher A||AA – AAA||116.0||2.48||2.98||25.9%||10.5%||15.4%||60.8%||12.4%|
|Pitcher B||AA – AAA||121.2||2.66||2.91||29.2%||6.1%||23.1%||67.6%||12.4%|
One of those pitchers is a top prospect. One of those pitchers is a fringe prospect. Pitcher A is Sheffield — you can tell because the strike rate is low. Pitcher B is Swanson. The strike rate is much, much higher. Yes, Swanson is older by two and a half years, so you’d think he’d perform more comfortably in the upper minors, but you can look at this in two ways. Perhaps Sheffield is overrated. Or, perhaps Swanson is underrated. If Swanson can be that good in the high minors, what more would he have to do in the bigs?
Because of Sheffield’s prospect pedigree, he’ll be the one under the microscope. He’s been the guy in the top-100. He’s the guy who was drafted 31st overall. Sheffield is believed to have high upside, and the Mariners must think they can coax more strikes out of his arm. Other teams aren’t so convinced — there’s a large group of evaluators that thinks Sheffield’s future will be in the bullpen. And, as a general rule, I wouldn’t want to get too hyped on a young pitcher the Yankees couldn’t quite get straightened out. The Sheffield of right now is an inefficient pitcher. The Mariners need to help him get better. Ideally, he’d pick something up as simply as Paxton did. Except, I guess, sooner.
The quality of the trade return, then, might be determined by whether Sheffield’s strike rate ends up closer to 60% or 65%. But I’m intrigued by Swanson as a secondary value, even if most people don’t think he’s a real starter. There’s no ignoring his performance, and now that he’s in Seattle, he’s hardly blocked. Maybe he’s only cut out for two trips through the order. Maybe he’s only cut out for one trip through the order. This kind of pitcher can be valuable in the current era. The Mariners will just need to give him the innings, should he keep forcing the issue in Triple-A.
As Thompson-Williams goes, he’s 23, and he hasn’t advanced past High-A. In High-A, he struck out 25% of the time. But on the plus side, in 2016, he hit three homers. In 2017, he hit another three homers. In 2018, he hit 22 homers. He’s a long shot, but he showed some major signs of progress. In the Mariners’ farm system, he looks a lot better than he did with the Yankees.
All things considered, I’m not sure the Mariners got as much for James Paxton as the Pirates got for Gerrit Cole. Sheffield is a polarizing prospect, and perhaps the market viewed Paxton’s health with something of a skeptical eye. But maybe the Mariners got more potential upside than the Pirates did. You can go either way, and one thing we can say is that Paxton’s availability was no secret. The Mariners had a number of offers to choose from. This is the one that they chose. It remains to be seen whether the Mariners have an appetite for tearing down even further than they already have.
What they’ve traded is a couple of two-year players, in Paxton and Mike Zunino. In the Zunino move, the Mariners’ loss was the Rays’ gain. And here, in the Paxton move, the Mariners’ loss is the Yankees’ gain, with the rotation adding one of the most effective starting pitchers in either league. I don’t know how much the Yankees can do to separate themselves — no matter what, the Red Sox, Indians, and Astros are going to be very good. But it’s the Yankees who just made a major splash. James Paxton won’t be flying under the radar anymore.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.