The Yankees made their first big splash of the 2018-19 offseason Monday night, as they acquired Canadian left-handed starting pitcher James Paxton from the Seattle Mariners in exchange for a package of three prospects.
Seattle picks up former No. 1 prospect LHP Justus Sheffield, No. 22 RHP Erik Swanson and unranked OF Dom Thompson-Williams. The deal was first reported by Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports, and was confirmed by the Yankees just 25 minutes later.
Paxton, 30, was drafted by the Mariners in the 4th round of the 2010 draft, despite being drafted 37th overall in 2009 by the Toronto Blue Jays and not signing. He debuted as a September call-up in 2013 by making four starts with a 1.50 ERA down the stretch. He was an up-and-down starter in 2014, and missed most of 2015 because of a strained tendon in his left middle finger.
The past three seasons (2016-2018) serve as the most consistent body of work for Paxton. He averaged 139 innings pitched across an average of 24 starts, with a 3.52 ERA (2.90 FIP) and 10.4 K/9. His career-high in starts came in 2018, as he pitched 160⅓ innings in 28 starts. His crowning achievement was his May 8 no-hitter against Toronto.
The issue with Paxton is his reliance on fastballs (63.6% of his pitches), and his durability. The Yankees acquired a fastball-heavy starter in J.A. Happ at the 2017 Trade Deadline, and largely allowed him to continue throwing a ton of fastballs. Boy, did that work out well. I figure the Yankees won’t shake up Paxton’s arsenal too much, but there’s likely going to be an uptick from just 36.4% offspeed pitches.
Now, for the durability question. Paxton has only thrown 160 innings once, and it came last year. Here’s his injury history since being a big-leaguer:
- 2014 (13 starts – 74 IP):
- Left Latissimus dorsi muscle strain (Out 3 months, 24 days)
- 2015 (13 starts – 67 IP):
- Strained tendon in left middle finger (Out 3 months, 15 days)
- 2016 (20 starts – 121 IP):
- Left elbow contusion (Out 17 days)
- 2017 (24 starts – 136 IP):
- Left forearm strain (Out 28 days)
- Strained left pectoral muscle (Out 1 month, 4 days)
- 2018 (28 starts – 160⅓ IP):
- Lower back inflammation (Out 17 days)
- Left forearm contusion (Out 17 days)
There’s some fluke injuries there, but the questions will remain until he turns in another season with at least 160 innings. The Yankees have two arbitration years of Paxton, and they have to hope he can put it together.
In four career starts against Boston, Paxton is 2-0 with a 2.49 ERA and has limited the Red Sox to a .529 OPS. That’s the kind of pitcher Brian Cashman is hoping will take the mound at least 30 times per season for the next two years.
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On the other side of the coin, Justus Sheffield was the much-hyped pitching prospect who came to the Yankees in the 2016 Andrew Miller trade. Sheffield never got his command together (3.9 BB/9 in 2018), and the Yankees ran out of patience with his development. Seattle is still betting on his upside, though Buster Olney of ESPN noted the Mariners could utilize him as a reliever. That’s where the 22-year-old debuted for New York in 2018, allowing three earned runs in 2⅔ innings (10.13 ERA) with three walks and no strikeouts.
Erik Swanson, the teams former No. 22 prospect, came to the Yankees in the 2016 Carlos Beltrán trade. He was on the 40-man bubble ahead of Tuesday’s Rule 5 deadline after posting a 2.66 ERA in 24 games (22 starts) across three minor-league levels.
Dom Thompson-Williams, 23, was a fifth-round pick in 2016 by the Yankees out of the University of South Carolina. He hit .299/.363/.546 with 22 home runs and 74 RBIs in Low- and High-A ball in a breakout 2018 season.
Overall, I’m comfortable with the package the Yankees gave up. Paxton clearly helps the big-league team more than Sheffield, Swanson wasn’t even a lock for the 40-man roster and a 23-year-old outfielder in A-ball is definitely expendable.