Making sense of the Yankees' trade for Mariners ace James Paxton, and what's ahead for both clubs
One of baseball's best lefties is coming to the Bronx in the first blockbuster trade of the offseason
Carve out some space in Central Park. The Big Maple is coming to the Big Apple.
The Yankees pulled off of this offseason, acquiring All-Star left-hander James Paxton from the Mariners in exchange for pitching prospects Justus Sheffield and Erik Swanson, plus outfield prospect Dom Thompson-Williams.
If you want to know why the Yankees and a raft of other teams were hot after Paxton, start with this simple pattern:
James Paxton strikeout rates
That last number is absolutely gigantic. In striking out nearly one-third of the batters he faced last season, Paxton trailed only Astros co-aces Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole among AL pitchers in bat-missing prowess. With a fastball that averages better than 95 mph, Paxton is one of the hardest-throwing lefty starters in the game. He complements that heat with a cutter that absolutely befuddles right-handed hitters. Get this: Righty swingers batted a tiny .202/.254/.364 against him in 2018, a stat line that should prompt opposing managers to use left-handed hitters more often than the 17 percent of total plate appearances they made against Paxton last season.
Paxton's issue isn't one of skill, but rather of health. Any team looking to add an ace would blanch at Paxton's modest total of 160 1/3 innings pitched in 2018. Yet that number represented the highest total of his major-league career to date, hard to believe given that Paxton's already 30 years old. The southpaw has made six trips to the disabled list in the past five years. He missed four months with a strained latissimus dorsi muscle in 2014; three-and-a-half months with a strained tendon in his middle finger in 2015; 10 days with a bruised pitching elbow in 2016; three-and-a-half weeks with a strained forearm and a month with a strained pectoral muscle in 2017; and two-and-a-half weeks with a lower back injury in 2018.
Though these were all separate injuries and thus none of them chronic issues, it's enough to cast at least some doubt on the deal, despite Paxton's undeniable talent and the Yankees' screaming need for rotation help.
Acquiring Paxton does aggressively address the starting pitching void that's held the Yankees back during the Baby Bombers era. Luis Severino went from Cy Young candidate to Double-A mopup man candidate last season, as his ERA ballooned from 2.31 in the first half to 5.57 in the second half. Masahiro Tanaka and his splitter of death looked awesome at times last season, but also served up the sixth-highest home run rate among all American League starting pitchers with 150 or more innings pitched. CC Sabathia is 38 years old and getting by on smoke, mirrors and guile at this point; the shows that the market sees him as nothing more than a back-of-the-rotation option at this stage of his career. Meanwhile, midseason pickups J.A. Happ and Lance Lynn filed for free agency, Jordan Montgomery will miss most or all of next season after Tommy John and Brian Cashman is ready to accept a couple subway tokens for Sonny Gray, the former All-Star who proved to be an apocalyptically bad fit at Yankee Stadium.
As a result of all that rotation uncertainty, Cashman said after the Paxton deal that around $164 million according to the excellent Cot's contracts page, so pursuing another lefty like Patrick Corbin, Dallas Keuchel or Happ to bolster the rotation and partially negate Yankee Stadium's short porch in right field would make all kinds of sense.for more starting pitching. Ducking under the luxury tax threshold last season will save the Yankees tens of millions of dollars, and would make going back over that threshold into the $200 million-plus range a much more logical course of action (even though the Yankees could probably turn a profit on a $300 million payroll, but just won't tell you that). With Paxton in tow, the Bombers' projected payroll sits at
They wouldn't be done even if that other arm does materialize. The Yankees reportedly pursued Mariners All-Star shortstop Jean Segura as part of the deal, before settling on Paxton alone. The interest in Segura underscores the Yankees' concerns over the health of Didi Gregorius, given that Gregorius could be out until next summer after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Cashman said he's looking for bullpen reinforcements too, after David Robertson and Zach Britton hit the open market. The idea that a bullpen with Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances and Chad Green leading the way might seem preposterous at first glance. But even with Paxton, the Yankees don't employ a single starter who doesn't come with either significant performance or health concerns. Making the sixth inning and on a nightmare for opposing hitters has been a viable strategy for a team that relies more heavily on power hitting and power pitching than anyone else, even at a time when teams are setting home-run and strikeout records. No reason to stop now.
For the Mariners, this is the most aggressive move to date by GM Jerry Dipoto in his efforts to reload with an eye toward 2020 and 2021. MLB.com rates Sheffield as the No. 31 prospect in the game, a major-league ready left-hander who could offer that elusive combination of strong performance and low price tag just as the M's next push to contend. Swanson carries less upside, but he's a 25-year-old right-hander who struck out 78 batters in 72 Triple-A innings last season and could also be ready for his big league debut. Thompson-Williams was a bit old for his level in 2018, but he did just go 20-20 across two levels of Single-A ball.
With Paxton offering two more years of club control, this came down to a timing move for the Mariners: Dipoto didn't think they could hang with the Astros for the next couple seasons, and he was almost certainly correct in making that call.
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