For athletes not named Felix Hernandez (my one and only), it’s usually Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind whenever someone leaves the Seattle orbit. To be fair, with fantasy football what it is, it’s relatively easy to keep tabs on ex-Huskies who have moved on to better things; and I always enjoy whenever the Husky basketball Twitter feed updates me on all the goings on of our pro Dawgs. But, I’m rarely going out of my way to keep tabs on players once they’ve left the Seattle area.
The Mariners traded James Paxton to the Yankees after the 2018 season, for Justus Sheffield and others. I knew at the time that he didn’t have a lot of club control left, but I couldn’t have pinpointed with any certainty when that contract was set to expire. He went to the Yankees with high expectations, and even though his numbers ended up being relatively in line with past performance (maybe just a tick worse, but negligible overall), and even though he started a career-high 29 games, he obviously fell short of those expectations. If we’re being honest, though, it’s almost impossible to meet expectations when it comes to the Yankees; if you’re not leading them to a World Series, then you’re probably falling short in some way.
Regardless, 2020 was as close to a disaster as it gets. Even in a pandemic-shortened year, Paxton’s season was further cut short due to injuries, and he managed only five starts. Before the season even started, he had surgery on his back that would’ve cost him 3-4 months, then his recurring forearm issue returned and that was that. The Yankees apparently just let him walk, rather than extend him any further offers.
I guess we know which team won THAT trade!
When I heard Paxton was still a free agent a month into 2021, those whispers that he might prefer a return to Seattle became a lot more interesting. There has, of course, been a lot of lobbying from a segment of the fanbase for the Mariners to “spend money”, if not to win now, at least to put us into a better position to win in 2022, when some of the highly-touted prospects start showing up. Even though this is only a one year deal, it makes a lot of sense to bring Paxton back now, to see what he has left in the tank.
It’s a one year deal for $8.5 million. I’m told there are incentives tied to the number of starts (or maybe just appearances) he makes: $750,000 for 10 starts, and another $750,000 if he makes it to 20 (max value of $10 million, in other words). That seems like a pretty achievable goal; he could spend a good chunk of the season on the Injured List and still make it to 20 starts no problem.
I like the move because I like James Paxton. When he’s healthy, there aren’t many left-handed pitchers who are more dominant. He’ll be 32 years old this year, and as we all know, durability isn’t his strong suit, so I don’t know if it’ll ever be wise to trust him with a huge-money, multi-year contract. But, at this point – even if he makes it through 2021 unscathed (which, the smart money says he’ll be at least a LITTLE scathed eventually, based on history) – I don’t think there’s enough trust in him to guarantee anything more than a 3-year deal at best. So, if he’s great again, and the Mariners like what they see, another extension a year from now shouldn’t break the bank.
Plus, get this: he actually LIKES Seattle! Who knew THAT was possible?! I’m used to professional Seattle teams having to over-pay to bring in quality free agents; it’s rare for this to be an ideal landing spot for an incoming player.
The bottom line is, it’s a win-win for both parties. Paxton gets a low-pressure environment to showcase his abilities, and the Mariners get a relatively cheap starter to throw onto the pile. It works to both parties’ advantage that we’re rolling back the six-man rotation as well. Obviously, it seems like this is the best way to maximize Paxton without over-working his arm, while still giving the Mariners an opportunity to build up the arms of some of our younger prospects.
Ultimately, I think it boils down to this: no one was super-excited about Chris Flexen. I think we can all agree – for a team like the Mariners, in the middle of a rebuild – the Flexen signing is a relatively smart one. But, he’s still a big question mark when it comes to being a Major League starter. Considering all the other big question marks we have in this rotation, it’s only natural to want to bolster this part of the roster.
So, what are we looking at now? Not a bad little rotation, all things considered:
- Marco Gonzales
- James Paxton
- Yusei Kikuchi
- Justus Sheffield
- Chris Flexen
- Justin Dunn
Even though Paxton is more of your prototypical Ace-type starter, there’s no way he’s taking over Marco’s spot in the rotation, which is probably for the best if you think about it. That further takes the pressure off of Paxton – he can be just one of the guys – and obviously doesn’t create a rift on the team, considering Marco is one of the main leaders on the roster. Also, since Paxton’s fastball is so much faster than Marco’s, it makes more sense for him to go after, that way whenever we face the same team, they won’t be all geared up to crush Marco’s softer stuff (what that means for the guy who ultimately has to follow Paxton is, of course, troublesome, but that’s neither here nor there).
Obviously, I have no idea the actual order of the rotation; that won’t be made clear until we get into Spring Training. But, those are the guys likeliest to qualify for the rotation, so barring any surprises, I think we’re pretty set. It wouldn’t shock me to see Flexen moved up in the rotation, just to break things up, since the way I have it would mean four consecutive left-handed starters in a row, but again, we’ll cross that bridge when it comes.
I like the top two guys a lot! The next two, I have relatively high hopes for; and the last two are total wild cards.
This being baseball, I wouldn’t expect the rotation to remain static. There will be injuries. There may be demotions. And, of course, there will be guys in the upper minors who are pounding on the door, just itching to make their marks.
The only question that remains between now and when the players report to camp is: will the Mariners make any more signings? Taijuan Walker is STILL a free agent, you know …