At least this offseason is off to a better start than the brutal slog that was last year’s. We’re still a few days away from December and we’ve already had our annual Mariners-Rays trade involving lots and lots of players. While we’re still waiting on the free agent market to develop and for the bigger fish to find homes, we at least received our first round of low-key signings (Steve Pearce, Jeff Mathis and Kurt Suzuki). This week, however, brought us the biggest news of the offseason so far, one which, of course, was a trade involving the Mariners and GM Jerry “Always Be Trading” Dipoto.
Even if Seattle is mostly off your radar, you’re probably aware of James Paxton thanks to his 16-strikeout outing and no-hitter in back-to-back appearances last May. If you weren’t all that aware of him before, get ready to be made more aware, because he’s moving from the Pacific Northwest to the Eastern Seaboard and will be the recipient of far more media attention as a member of the Yankees.
The Big Maple, as the Canadian Paxton is most excellently nicknamed, is a tall (6’4”) southpaw with electric stuff (average 96 MPH fastball), the kind of pitcher teams salivate over in our current era. While he’s coming off a pair of seasons where he put up a 3.40 ERA, 2.95 FIP, 121 ERA+, 11.1 K/9 and a combined 6.7 bWAR/8.4 fWAR, this is a relatively recent development from a player who made his debut in 2013.
While Paxton was a highly touted prospect, he didn’t find immediate success and, as recently as 2016, started the season in AAA-ball, thanks to an extremely poor, 10.80 ERA showing in Spring Training that year. While he was down in the minors, though, he made an arm-slot adjustment, and has been excellent on the mound ever since, posting ridiculous numbers that land him among the best in baseball.
Among starters with at least 400 IP in the last three seasons, his 10.37 K/9 is 7th best, his 2.24 BB/9 is 13th and his 2.90 FIP is 4th. In all of those stats, Paxton is right next to another pitcher you will definitely be familiar with: 2018 NL Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom. The numbers for deGrom and Paxton are eerily similar over the last three seasons, with the notable exceptions of ERA, BABIP and LOB% (and the latter two can certainly help explain the first).
Unfortunately for Paxton and the Mariners, there was one other big difference between him and deGrom: innings pitched, which why we had that innings-count caveat to start the analysis in this paragraph.
Paxton has had serious issues staying on the field throughout his MLB career. His inning count by year, starting in 2014 (not counting his September 2013 debut): 74, 67, 121, 136 and 160. He’s missed an awful lot of time. But when you actually look at the injuries that Paxton suffered, it’s a litany of strains and bruises to different parts of his body, some serious, some not, with nary a mention of the dreaded shoulder or elbow inflammation. Nope, these are mostly unrelated, flukish injuries. So, there’s every reason to believe that Paxton could continue to best his prior innings counts next season, and the season after. And, while he also turned 30 earlier this month, he actually has less mileage on his arm than most 30-year old pitchers, thanks to all those bruises and strains.
So, the Yankees basically went out and got themselves an ace, even if it was one who has some question marks. This was far some surprising, as the starting pitching was an issue for the Yankees in the regular season and then again in the postseason. Less than a year after CC Sabathia failed to make it out of the fourth inning in Game 7 of the ALCS against the Astros, New York had to call on him again this postseason against the Red Sox in another elimination game, where he pitched three innings and took the loss in another season-ending game for New York. While the Yankees have already resigned Sabathia to a one-year, $8 million deal, they probably are getting entirely sick of handing him the ball to start elimination games.
The Yankees headed into this offseason with one clear need, given their strong, mostly homegrown lineup and dominant bullpen, and they’ve already gotten off to an impressive start by taking what will surely be one of the best pitchers to be made available off the market. And he’s affordable, too, with two years of arbitration left, and only $9 million-ish due in 2019. If Paxton performs well enough to earn a pay raise for 2020, the Yankees will be more than happy to oblige.
But a pitcher like Paxton doesn’t come without a cost, and headed to Seattle are a trio of prospects in LHP Justus Sheffield, RHP Erik Swanson and outfielder Dom Thompson-Williams. The 22-year-old Sheffield is the biggest name of the bunch, given his prospect-ranking status (31 at MLB.com, 54 at Fangraphs, 40 at Baseball Prospectus) and the fact that he was one of the big names that moved to New York in the Andrew Miller trade with the Indians.
Sheffield has already made his big-league debut, appearing in three games this season. Those games didn’t go particularly well, mainly because Sheffield struggled with command (10.13 BB/9) and home runs (3.38 HR/9). While that’s almost certainly due to the small sample size gremlins and we shouldn’t put much stock in it, Sheffield has had problems with control throughout his young career. Nevertheless, he’ll probably be in the majors next season one way or another, and, if he can make an adjustment and throw more strikes, he could end up making the deal look like a steal, depending on whether Paxton is, in fact, able to stay on the field.
While Sheffield is the most exciting piece in the trade, we shouldn’t overlook Swanson. He’s older, at 25, but he was successful in AAA-ball last season, with a 3.86 ERA over 72.1 innings, with 9.7 K/9 and 1.7 BB/9. The 23-year old Thompson-Williams is still in the lower minors, but he took a big step forward last season in terms of power (17 HRs) and his ability to contribute down the line shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, even if he is a former 5th round pick.
Grade for Mariners: B
Seattle will certainly start off 2019 in worse shape than they did in 2018, because Paxton is a known commodity, injuries and all. When he’s healthy, he’s one of the best pitchers in baseball, and so it’s not entirely clear why a team that won 89 games would trade away a player like that who still has two years of control. But Seattle’s record was a bit of smoke and mirrors, given that they had a -34 run differential and went 36-21 in run-one games and 14-1 in extra innings and projected more like an under-.500 team than a 90-win one.
The Mariners may have taken a step back to start the season, but both of the pitchers in the deal could be in the rotation by the seasons’ end. Or they might not be. Prospects are prospects. But you can certainly see why Dipoto made this move. Paxton alone wasn’t going to get his team to the postseason next year and now he’s got more depth and a lot more team control to work with as he tries to figure out a way to break the Mariners’ seemingly never ending drought.
Grade for Yankees: B+
If Paxton isn’t healthy, then, hoo boy, the NYC sportswriters and internet commenters are going to have a field day. But there’s not really any reason to just assume that he won’t be. While pitchers are inherently fragile creatures, there’s nothing in Paxton’s injury history to suggest that he’s going to crumble in New York, and the upside is sky-high. Not that they didn’t pay for it, because all of the good things we have to say about the prospects New York traded away have to figure into the ledger on their side.
While the Yankees couldn’t find anyone to trust after Severino come the postseason, that shouldn’t be the case next year. The offseason is just getting started and we’ll probably still see one of the best free agent starters in pinstripes before we’re done, but the Yankees have already notched an ace just to get things started.