JAMES PAXTON GOES TO THE BRONX

James Paxton

And so we wait. We better get the gas or electricity checked on that old hot stove. So far, the surface is tepid, at best. There has been very little action so far in major league baseball.

Traditionally, the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas has been a busy time for roster movement. At least it has been the past several years. Last year, however, so many free agent players had not signed a contract deep into the offseason, the Players Association established a workout area for them in Florida. We can only hope the market moves more quickly this time around.

From now until spring training begins, I will have two missions and goals for this column.
I will provide commentary of transactions that have been or have not been made and I will provide fantasy opinions for the upcoming season. Those will likely come deeper into the winter.

I am attending the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas beginning Sunday next week. You can follow my thoughts about what I am hearing and seeing at the meetings on my twitter account @BerniePleskoff.

For now, I want to share my thoughts on what might be one of the biggest transactions this year.

JAMES PAXTON IS TRADED TO THE YANKEES

THE DEAL

-New York Yankees acquire LHP James Paxton

-Seattle Mariners acquire LHP Justus Sheffield, RHP Erik Swanson and OF Dom-Thompson Williams

I characterize the Yankees-Mariners trade as a “scout” trade. The players the Mariners received in return for James Paxton were likely encouraged by Mariners scouts. It is quite possible each and every prospect included from the Yankees was highly recommended by at least one or two scout advocates. It is likely left-handed pitcher Justus Sheffield, right-handed pitcher Erik Swanson and outfielder Dom Thompson-Williams had major Seattle scouts in their corner.

The Seattle Mariners have traded James Paxton to the New York Yankees. When I saw the headline I just laughed. The rich just got richer.

I have seen James Paxton pitch a great deal. Every year, I got to see him at the Mariners spring training camp in Peoria, Arizona. I got to see him extensively in the 2015 Arizona Fall League. I wrote multiple scouting reports at the time about my high evaluation of him as a No. 2 starter. I watched him pitch for the Mariners in major league games.

In this space in recent years I have always advocated that the New York Yankees should load up on left-handed starters. With such an inviting right field porch, Yankee Stadium is a haven for left-handed hitters. Having left-handed starters might keep more opposing right-handed hitters in the lineup at the Stadium. Frankly, I think the Red Sox get that, as they have David Price, Chris Sale and Eduardo Rodriguez in their rotation. I don’t think the Indians get it. If lefty Dallas Keuchel chooses to leave Houston as a free agent, the Astros, too, will be without a left-handed starter when they go to New York to play the Yankees.

For their part, as of this writing, the Yankees will enter the season with C.C. Sabathia and now James Paxton in their rotation. Perhaps Sabathia will be in the bullpen if the Yankees fortify their rotation with other arms. They may re-sign lefty J.A. Happ. But make no mistake, the acquisition of lefty James Paxton is huge.

Frankly, if the Yankees do no more this offseason than obtain Paxton, their offseason will have been a huge success and they will improve their club dramatically.

Why? Because Paxton is an outstanding pitcher. True, he has been injury prone. In his last three seasons with Seattle, Paxton has thrown 121 (2016) 136 (2017) and 160.1 (2018) innings. That is not enough time on the mound for an “ace”. And his won-loss record isn’t very exciting (6-7) (12-5) and (11-6). He has the following ERA/WHIP in those three seasons: (3.79/1.30) (2.98/3.10) and (1.09/3.76).

In his six-year major league career, Paxton is a 10.9 Wins Above Replacement pitcher.

And now, Paxton takes the ball for the New York Yankees, a 100-game winning club. He leaves the Seattle Mariners, a team that won 11 fewer games, and that really isn’t insignificant. The Yankees are a better team. And he makes them even better.

Last year, before spring training in Phoenix, general managers from all the teams training in the Valley had a session with the media. I have known Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto for years. I like the way he runs his club. He is fearless. In reality, the Diamondbacks should have stuck with Dipoto as their general manager when he got a brief trial at the job, but they let him go. I think they would be much further along than they are today. But that’s a topic for my commentary in the next issue below. I made the following comment to Dipoto last February. Bernie: “I think you could have a Cy Young Award winner on your staff.” Dipoto: “You mean Paxton, right? I agree. If he can stay healthy his stuff is good enough to win it. He’s that good. And he’s underrated.” I was encouraged that Dipoto has as high hopes for Paxton as me.

Now, almost a year later, Paxton departs Seattle for New York. And he doesn’t need to have the weight of the world on him as the team’s “ace”. That role can certainly belong to Luis Severino. Or maybe even Masahiro Tanaka. Or maybe Patrick Corbin or Dallas Keuchel or someone that hasn’t been acquired yet.

Affectionately called “The Big Maple” because he is from Ladner, Canada, few people remember that the Blue Jays made Paxton their 1st round draft pick in 2009 out of the University of Kentucky. He did not sign. Instead, following his senior year at Kentucky, he signed in the following draft when the Seattle Mariners selected him in the 4th round.

Having just turned 30 in November, the big 6-4, 235 pound lefty has a nice shelf life remaining, provided he can stay healthy. And therein lies the rub. Without going into great detail in this space, suffice it to say Paxton has had trouble with a forearm strain, severe back issues, a strained pectoral muscle, and more.

On May 8, 2018, Paxton became the first Canadian born pitcher to throw a major league no-hitter while pitching in his home country. He beat the Blue Jays 5-0 that day, walking three and striking out seven.

Paxton has a complete repertoire that includes a four-seam fastball, a two-seam sinking fastball, a curveball, a cutter, and a changeup. This past season he was able to throw his four-seamer between 89 and 99 miles per hour. Adding and subtracting velocity from his fastball really changes the approach for the hitter. In fact, changing the eye level and the balance of the hitter is foremost in Paxton’s approach on the mound. He is confident using any pitch at any count. The net result is a 2018 strikeout rate of 11.7 per nine innings. His walk rate last season was 2.4 walks per nine innings, identical to his 2017 rate.

One of the aspects I like most about Paxton is his rather low 582.1 total innings pitched at the big league level. For comparison sake, the aforementioned Dallas Keuchel is also 30-but more on the backside of 30. He has 1189 innings on his left arm. Patrick Corbin is just 29. He missed time with Tommy John surgery. However, Corbin has 945.2 innings pitched at the big league level. Paxton’s 582.1 is remarkable. The Yankees are getting a low-mileage late model with lots of tread on the tires.

And really, the Yankees don’t need to re-sign J.A. Happ. He’s 36 and has pitched for 12 years. He has thrown 1530.2 innings, or 948.2 innings more than Paxton. The Yankees can take their pick from among Corbin or Keuchel or someone else, as long as they pay the price. I think they will.

THE DEAL FOR PAXTON

JUSTUS SHEFFIELD

The Mariners received left-handed pitcher Justus Sheffield, right-handed pitcher Erik Swanson and outfielder Dom-Thompson Williams from New York in the deal for Paxton.

Was it enough for a lefty that has proven he can throw a no-hitter and when healthy, has excellent numbers? In a word-no.

I have watched Justus Sheffield pitch since the time he was selected by the Cleveland Indians in the 1st round of the 2014 draft of Tullahoma High School in Tullahoma, Tennessee. Sheffield was the 31st player taken in that draft. I saw him in several minor league All Star Games and at Indians spring training.

Undersized a bit by today’s standards, the 6-0, 200 pound lefty has improved his command and control some since I first started scouting him back in 2015. However, he was prone to regression this past season.

Like I did with Paxton, I got to see Sheffield pitch in the Arizona Fall League in 2017. I have to admit I have always had my doubts about Sheffield. I still do.

The Justus Sheffield I have scouted had great difficulty throwing strikes consistently and commanding his fastball. He has a minor league walk rate of 3.4 per nine innings. This past season, he walked 3.7 hitters per nine innings in 88 innings at Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre. He had walked 4.5 hitters per nine innings in 28 innings at Double-A Trenton before his promotion. The Yankees promoted Sheffield to the parent club with a call up in September, He threw a total of 2.2 innings in relief. He walked three. He yielded four hits, including a home run.

Now Sheffield clearly sits atop the Mariners prospect pool. I would guess Jerry Dipoto traded for Sheffield to use him in the Mariners starting rotation. He has to replace the departed James Paxton as well as augment a rotation that includes an aging and declining Felix Hernandez.

I have assigned Sheffield a grade 50 on the 40-80 scout grading scale. It means for me he is a rotation starter, but major league average, not better. For most analysts, Sheffield is a 55, better than average. For me, he moves to a grade 55 future when he can consistently command his pitches.

There is little question Sheffield can use that fastball/slider combination to miss bats and get the strikeouts. But what about that walk rate?

Sheffield uses a three-pitch mix. He relies upon a good fastball that has a range between 92-96 miles per hour. When he tries to amp it up beyond that level he loses command and backs off. He really sits best at 94 to 95 miles per hour with late, sinking life on the pitch. It’s a solid pitch, probably at a grade 55 for me. His slider is his best secondary pitch in my estimation. He uses his fastball/slider combination effectively when he can command the release point of both pitches. Like his fastball and slider, the command of his other pitch, a changeup, can be very inconsistent. I have seen the curveball, but like the slider, he can get hit hard with that pitch if he has to get back on top of the count. When he falls behind in the count, that’s when Sheffield comes off the rails at times.

I don’t think more time in minor league development is going to change his command issues. He will have to pitch his way to improvement facing major league hitters. Sheffield feels he is ready for a 25-man roster spot on the parent Mariners and I don’t think it would help his mental outlook to keep him back much longer. It is his time to make it. Fix it, and make it work.

A deal that brings a top quality left-handed pitcher to the Yankees with upside remaining is worth more than what the Yankees paid. For me, this deal was a steal for New York.

I realize I have just written at length about the fact I believe Sheffield has issues that remain regarding command and control. They are the same issues he has fought his entire professional career. However, is it possible Sheffield could be more valuable as a left-handed reliever? That’s a thought I have considered many times. The Mariners need starters, there is no doubt about that. That’s why they traded for Sheffield and righty Erik Swanson. But in my evaluation, I believe Sheffield may be much better suited for shorter term mound appearances pitching out of the bullpen. I think he would be effective and find more consistency having to pitch to fewer total batters in fewer total innings in any given week.

ERIK SWANSON

Erik Swanson is a 6-3, 235 pound right-handed pitcher who was selected by the Texas Rangers in the 8th round of the 2014 draft out of Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

In August. 2016 the Rangers traded Swanson along with fellow right-handers Dillon Tate and Nick Green to the Yankees for outfielder/designated hitter Carlos Beltran. None of those three right-handed pitchers are on the Yankees 40-man roster. Tate is in the Orioles organization. Green is still with the Yankees organization and spent last season pitching at Class-A Advanced Tampa and Double-A Trenton.

Swanson is basically a fastball/slider pitcher with velocity that sits between 91-94 miles per hour. He can increase that velocity to 98 mph almost at will, but he has had increasing success in the lower range. From what I have seen of Swanson, and I admit the video has been limited, he could probably fit best in the bullpen. I just don’t think he has any one particular pitch or array of enough pitches in his repertoire to fit in a rotation.

Swanson is still a work in progress. His repertoire isn’t refined as yet, with work to be done on all his pitches, but especially a changeup that he’s worked on for the past two seasons.

Prior to the trade with the Mariners, the Yankees faced an issue any club would love to have. They simply had too many quality minor league players to protect on their 40-man roster. Somebody had to go. Or perhaps, more than one somebody. Consider that Jonathan Loaisiga, Domingo Acevedo, and Albert Abreu are only three of eight pitching prospects that are listed by most analysts in the club’s Top 10 prospect lists. It is little wonder Swanson was expendable. He could not be promoted to the parent club before any of those ten pitchers.

In essence, the Yankees front office did Swanson a huge favor by trading him to club that can deploy him in either the bullpen or in the back end of their rotation at some point in 2019, if not sooner should the need arise and he continues to improve.

It isn’t that Swanson is a bad pitcher. To the contrary, his numbers are improving in his development program. This past season he pitched at three levels in the Yankees organization. He threw 6.2 innings at Short Season Staten Island, 42.2 innings at Double-A Trenton and 72.1 innings at Tripe-A Scranton-Wilkes-Barre. He had a combined record of 8-2 with a very fine 2.66 ERA and 1.003 WHIP in his 121.2 total innings pitched. He walked only 2.1 hitters per nine innings and struck out 10.3 hitters per nine.

Questions remain about Swanson’s ability to repeat his delivery and command his pitches on a consistent basis. It is due to his vast recent improvement that the Mariners were interested in obtaining him from the Yankees. He is moving in the right direction at the age of 25. However, I can’t project Swanson as anything more than a below average pitcher with a chance to help as a spot-starter or reliever. I don’t think he has a significant enough repertoire to make an impact on the Mariners pitching staff.

DOM THOMPSON-WILLIAMS

In full disclosure, I have never seen Dom Thompson-Williams play. Not on tape and certainly not in person.

I cannot give a scouting assessment of the player until I see him play.

I do know he is a left-handed hitting, left-handed throwing centerfielder who was drafted by the Yankees in the 5th round out of the University of South Carolina in 2016. Prior to that he was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2014, but he did not sign.

Thompson-Williams has played parts of three seasons in the Yankees system. He has a career batting average of .270 with 28 home runs and 118 RBI in 897 plate appearances.

This past year, Thompson-Williams played at Class-A Charleston where he hit .378/5/9 in 40 plate appearances. He stole three bases in five attempts. He was promoted to Class-A Advanced and hit .290/17/65 in 375 plate appearances. Finishing a season with 17 home runs and 65 RBI is a wonderful accomplishment for a 23 year-old prospect. He had a total of 20 stolen bases in 29 attempts, so his speed in centerfield must play well.

Given his performance in minor league baseball, I feel Dom Thompson-Williams could be a saving grace in this transaction. He has put together a nice minor league resume and he is making progress with power and his hit tool.

Again, Thompson-Williams is likely the result of good scouting that identified him along with Erik Swanson as building blocks in a new direction for the re-tooling and refining Seattle Mariners.

CONCLUSIONS

I realize prospect trades are the product of good scouting. I also realize prospects are just that-prospects. Unlike James Paxton, Justus Sheffield, Erik Swanson and Dom Thompson-Williams have not proven themselves on the major league stage. Each has upside. Each carries potential to succeed. Each has risks associated with their game. The major risk is failure among the best players in the world.

The risk/award equation that I consider in every major deal swings in the favor of the Yankees in the Paxton trade. The risk that Paxton gets hurt again far exceeds the risk he doesn’t pitch well in the American League East. His track record, which isn’t that deep is still proven in his numbers.

The reward that Paxton offers is a tremendous starting left-handed pitcher that lengthens an already quality Yankees rotation. He adds quality depth and a pitcher that can negate left-handed hitters playing at Yankee Stadium.

James Paxton has All-Star potential this coming year and for years to come.

Justus Sheffield could eventually become an All-Star. However, I’m not a believer. The risk with Sheffield is the lack of consistent command and control of his repertoire. It bothers me that I saw regression this past season. Big league hitters will pose big league problems.

The brightest light I see from the Mariners standpoint could be Dom Thompson-Williams. Yes, while the upside is good for Sheffield, the thought of a quality, fast, good hitting center fielder now in the Mariners organizations should provide some hope for the future in Seattle.

In no uncertain terms, I feel the New York Yankees made a tremendous trade for a very, very good left-handed starting pitcher with lots of innings left on his arm and upside remaining.

I feel Jerry Dipoto could have gotten more for James Paxton had he waited for more desperation to settle in on his fellow general managers. And it will. But James Paxton is off the table and out of the starting pitcher conversations.

Follow me on Twitter @BerniePleskoff

About The Author

Bernie Pleskoff is a former professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. Bernie's work has been featured on MLB Pipeline, MLB.com and FanRag Sports, among others. You can follow Bernie Pleskoff on Twitter @BerniePleskoff