The Yankees Now Have a Second Ace

The free-agent market includes names like Patrick Corbin and Dallas Keuchel. There’s been chatter the Mets might be willing to trade Noah Syndergaard. There’s been chatter the Indians might be willing to trade Carlos Carrasco or Corey Kluber. But when the Mariners signaled their intent to take a step back this offseason, James Paxton became an obvious trade candidate, and quite possibly the best pitcher available. At least, the best pitcher available under realistic circumstances, since I don’t even know what it would take to pry Kluber away. Paxton rumors circulated for a couple of weeks, and now we’ve arrived at a conclusion, since Jerry Dipoto is hardly opposed to making moves in November. Paxton will be on his way to New York, where he’ll share a rotation with Luis Severino.

Yankees get:

  • James Paxton

Mariners get:

Before too long, Paxton’s presence will be taken for granted, and attention will turn to the Yankees’ pursuit of still another starter in free agency. We’re seemingly always focused on what’s just in front of us, and what might be in front of Yankees fans soon is Corbin, or Keuchel, or somebody else. They seem likely to make another impact move to bolster the starting rotation. But for this moment, getting Paxton is a move to be celebrated. For a variety of reasons, Paxton has flown somewhat under the radar, but he’s a No. 1 starter, added to a team with a No. 1 starter.

One of the convenient things about obvious trade candidates is that it’s possible to write about them ahead of time, for cover. James Paxton has only just been traded today, but I said what I wanted to say about him a week ago. All of the same information applies. Paxton is 30 years old, and left-handed, and tall. He has two years of team control remaining, and he’s projected to earn about $9 million next season through arbitration. There are a lot of similarities between Paxton now and Gerrit Cole a year ago. The Yankees were interested in trading for Cole. They’ve wound up getting Paxton instead. In between, they won 100 games and lost to the Red Sox in the playoffs. It was a good season and a disappointing season at the same time.

For anyone unfamiliar with Paxton’s background, he was talented, and he was wild. In 2016, he had a mediocre spring and was demoted to Triple-A, but there, he was advised to make a mechanical change, lowering his arm slot from over-the-top to three-quarters. Better results came almost instantly. I’ll never forget the day Paxton returned to the majors. He started in San Diego and got obliterated, allowing eight runs in 3.2 innings. But he also threw hard, with plenty of strikes, and he struck out seven of 24 batters. I called the game “horrible and promising.” Paxton only got better and better.

Since there’s no reason not to, I’ll just re-post the data I put up last week. Here are a bunch of Paxton’s percentile rankings since 2016, among starting pitchers:

The lowest bar there corresponds to ERA-, which is also maybe the noisiest stat in the group. Paxton has been incredible when he’s been able to pitch. His performance has looked a lot like Carlos Carrasco’s. Here are some of Paxton’s projected percentile ranks, among starters, for 2019:

James Paxton throws hard, and he throws strikes, and he misses bats. He doesn’t allow that much loud contact. One reason he’s somewhat unknown, or underappreciated, is the fact he’s pitched for Seattle. The other reason is that he’s had injuries. The injuries are the lone blemish, as Paxton has never proven himself a workhorse.

The good news is that Paxton has never blown out his elbow. He’s also never blown out his shoulder. This past season, he made 28 starts. In 2016, he made 31 starts. But, there’s been a bad lat strain. There’s been a bad finger tendon strain. There’s been a bruised elbow. There’s been a bruised forearm. There’s been a strained forearm. There’s been a strained pec. There’s been lower back inflammation. String enough injuries together and a player ends up with a reputation. It’s a reputation that’s challenging to shake. Injuries like this aren’t always predictive, but Mariners fans weren’t shocked when Paxton had to miss a start.

That’s how this could conceivably backfire for the Yankees. If Paxton can’t keep himself on the mound, he’ll be a certain letdown. The same, however, would be true of anyone, and the Yankees might tell you many of Paxton’s injuries seem fluky. Again, he’s so far avoided the major red flags, and nothing went seriously wrong in 2018. Nothing went seriously wrong in 2016. Paxton should begin with a mostly clean bill of health, and the healthy version of James Paxton is an extraordinary starter.

In order to get Paxton, the Yankees did have to give away some youth. This is where we should look at things from the Mariners’ perspective. Paxton is 30 years old, with two years of control left. Sheffield, a lefty starter, is currently 22, with three big-league appearances. Swanson, a righty starter, is currently 25. Thompson-Williams, a lefty outfielder, is currently 23. The centerpiece here is Sheffield, who’s been ranked by Kiley McDaniel and Eric Longenhagen as baseball’s No. 54 prospect. There had been speculation the Mariners and Yankees might agree to a package including Sheffield and Clint Frazier, but Frazier’s concussion problems complicate things, to put it mildly.

The Mariners didn’t trade Paxton for a group of players down in the low minors. Sheffield is just about major-league ready. Swanson is also just about major-league ready. Thompson-Williams is a distant flier, but the two pitchers could make an impact within a few months of opening day. The Mariners are certainly worse than they were yesterday, but the hope is that the team can get younger without too deep of a reset. I don’t think the Mariners are looking for a five-year project. I think they’re looking for more of a three-year project. They’re hoping the return here can begin to pay off in short order.

Talking to Eric Longenhagen, he likes Sheffield’s raw stuff, and describes the secondary pitches as plus. The issue with Sheffield is control. It’s interesting to hear that Swanson is viewed as a back-end starter, or a multi-inning reliever. Sheffield and Swanson can both throw their heaters in the mid-90s. Sheffield has a little more zip, but it’s not as if Swanson is lacking. And here’s a comparison of their 2018 minor-league seasons, against advanced competition:

A Pitcher Comparison
Player Levels IP ERA FIP K% BB% K-BB% Strike% Whiff%
Pitcher A AA – AAA 116.0 2.48 2.98 25.9% 10.5% 15.4% 60.8% 12.4%
Pitcher B AA – AAA 121.2 2.66 2.91 29.2% 6.1% 23.1% 67.6% 12.4%

One of those pitchers is a top prospect. One of those pitchers is a fringe prospect. Pitcher A is Sheffield — you can tell because the strike rate is low. Pitcher B is Swanson. The strike rate is much, much higher. Yes, Swanson is older by two and a half years, so you’d think he’d perform more comfortably in the upper minors, but you can look at this in two ways. Perhaps Sheffield is overrated. Or, perhaps Swanson is underrated. If Swanson can be that good in the high minors, what more would he have to do in the bigs?

Because of Sheffield’s prospect pedigree, he’ll be the one under the microscope. He’s been the guy in the top-100. He’s the guy who was drafted 31st overall. Sheffield is believed to have high upside, and the Mariners must think they can coax more strikes out of his arm. Other teams aren’t so convinced — there’s a large group of evaluators that thinks Sheffield’s future will be in the bullpen. And, as a general rule, I wouldn’t want to get too hyped on a young pitcher the Yankees couldn’t quite get straightened out. The Sheffield of right now is an inefficient pitcher. The Mariners need to help him get better. Ideally, he’d pick something up as simply as Paxton did. Except, I guess, sooner.

The quality of the trade return, then, might be determined by whether Sheffield’s strike rate ends up closer to 60% or 65%. But I’m intrigued by Swanson as a secondary value, even if most people don’t think he’s a real starter. There’s no ignoring his performance, and now that he’s in Seattle, he’s hardly blocked. Maybe he’s only cut out for two trips through the order. Maybe he’s only cut out for one trip through the order. This kind of pitcher can be valuable in the current era. The Mariners will just need to give him the innings, should he keep forcing the issue in Triple-A.

As Thompson-Williams goes, he’s 23, and he hasn’t advanced past High-A. In High-A, he struck out 25% of the time. But on the plus side, in 2016, he hit three homers. In 2017, he hit another three homers. In 2018, he hit 22 homers. He’s a long shot, but he showed some major signs of progress. In the Mariners’ farm system, he looks a lot better than he did with the Yankees.

All things considered, I’m not sure the Mariners got as much for James Paxton as the Pirates got for Gerrit Cole. Sheffield is a polarizing prospect, and perhaps the market viewed Paxton’s health with something of a skeptical eye. But maybe the Mariners got more potential upside than the Pirates did. You can go either way, and one thing we can say is that Paxton’s availability was no secret. The Mariners had a number of offers to choose from. This is the one that they chose. It remains to be seen whether the Mariners have an appetite for tearing down even further than they already have.

What they’ve traded is a couple of two-year players, in Paxton and Mike Zunino. In the Zunino move, the Mariners’ loss was the Rays’ gain. And here, in the Paxton move, the Mariners’ loss is the Yankees’ gain, with the rotation adding one of the most effective starting pitchers in either league. I don’t know how much the Yankees can do to separate themselves — no matter what, the Red Sox, Indians, and Astros are going to be very good. But it’s the Yankees who just made a major splash. James Paxton won’t be flying under the radar anymore.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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darrenasu
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darrenasu

Seems a little light on the M’s side. Is it the innings ceiling? Would have thought they’d get a back end too 100 guy as well.

baubo
Member
baubo

I feel the initial reaction to every trade these days is that the team getting the prospects is getting the short end of the deal. I wonder if that’s actually the case. Looking back on the the trades these past years, it feels like only the top end talents like Sale or Chapman gets you a top prospect. Paxton is good but he’s a #2ish starter with injury baggage. A top 50ish prospect seems about right.

Ryan21
Member
Ryan21

You might be selling Paxton a bit short there. Steamer likes him as the 9th best pitcher in all of baseball next year.

cowdisciple
Member
Member
cowdisciple

14th in total pitcher WAR over the last three years despite the limited innings.

baubo
Member
baubo

I don’t really want to get into the argument between FIP-based metrics which love him and actual results or even rWAR-type stats that like him a lot less. But I’m fairly certain that baseball GMs as a collective probably takes somewhat of a middle ground, if not even moreso towards actual results in terms of who they’d trade to grab said player. Chris Archer was probably the best example of this where no one paid Ace price despite Archer having incredible fWAR yet continued to underperform his FIP.

As Jeff noted in his piece, Paxton’s best comp was Cole from last year, whom the Yankees offered a prospect in the 40s range iirc, certainly none of their top prospects whom they since graduated. So either teams don’t believe that he’s the 9th best pitcher in the game, or the 9th best pitcher isn’t worth as much as people think, as evident by Cole last year.

awy
Member
awy

all of the disparity lies in the contact quality he’s allowed in 2018, which is very bad. in 2017 his contact quality allowed was extremely good.

the difference between 2017 and 2018 contact quality then in turn lies almost entirely in the 20 more barrelled balls, while the non-barrel batted ball quality is the same.

seems like a case of batters having luck sitting on his fastballs more, which is potentially solvable by changing pitch mix to something more cutter and/or curve heavy.

baubo
Member
baubo

There has been a consistent disparity year to year, including 2017, between Paxton’s runs allowed and his FIP. It’s less in 2017, but more prevalent in both 2016 and 2018. Plus as noted he’s pitched less innings per game in addition overall fewer innings to help improve his raw stats.

Also, while I do agree that the Yankees probably can get more out of him than the Mariners, we are discussing trade value here. What the Yankees may or may not do with Paxton and what the market for him are two different ideas.

awy
Member
awy

2017 spread was just luck since his quality of contact was elite. this is not some guy who gets by with soft stuff.

emh1969
Member
emh1969

To add…Jeff compared Paxton to Cole and Carrasco. But both of those guys averaged 6.2 innings pitched per start the past two seasons. Paxton averaged 5.7. So Paxton’s limited innings aren’t just the result of injuries. They’re also the result of him not going very deep in his starts.

In some ways the Yankees seem to be the perfect team for Paxton, given their bullpen. On the other hand, they seemed to have some issues in middle relief last year…

Larry Bernandez
Member
Larry Bernandez

In 2018 Paxton had one start where he recorded two outs and one start where he recorded one out. In both cases he was pulled due to injury. Take those two starts out of the equation and his average start was 6.1 innings. It really is the injuries that limit him. When he’s healthy he’s pitching deep into games.

emh1969
Member
emh1969

You can’t just make adjustments to one pitcher and not others. Carrasco, for example. also left a game after 1.1 innings due to injury. And he was pulled after only 5 innings in his last start of the season to avoid an injury before the playoffs. Adjust for those, and he’s up to 6.44 innings per start. And in 2017, it doesn’t look like Paxton left any starts super early due to injury. So his average for the past two years is about 5.9 innings per “non-left-early-due-to-injury” start.

Larry Bernandez
Member
Larry Bernandez

True enough. My point is simply that if Paxton is pitching around 6 innings per start when he’s healthy, that’s above average. Carrasco pitched deeper into games, but there are other things to consider, like quality of opponents. Per ESPN RPI, the Indians had the easiest schedule in baseball, while the Mariners had the 3rd hardest. Comparing Paxton to Carrasco doesn’t feel like a stretch to me.

Carrasco drew a top 10 offense in 4 of his 30 starts.

Paxton drew a top 10 offense in 12 of his 28 starts.

Travis L
Member
Member
Travis L

It’s saying the same thing, but it’s interesting how much different it sounds when you say “GMs are valuing prospects a lot more than they used to”.

channelclemente
Member

One wonders what the year over year outcomes are on Steamer.

Michael
Member
Member
Michael

And Steamer has Chris Archer a couple spots behind. Paxton is good, but being 30 with a career high of 160 IP would make me value him well lower than the 9th best SP. Projections don’t pick up on everything.

montreal
Member
montreal

If James Paxton is a # 2, then there are no # 1s. Come on, Paxton is an Ace. Through and through.

Pepper Martin
Member
Pepper Martin

That’s… nonsense. As a Yankees’ fan, I’ll put it this way: Paxton is not as good as Luis Severino, and Severino isn’t quite an ace. Like, a cut-rate ace.

As far as ace pitchers go, you’ve got Kluber and Verlander and Sale and Kershaw and Scherzer and that’s basically it. I could see an argument for deGrom but I’m just not quite able to put him there yet.

On the 2018 WAR list, Paxton finished just behind Mike Foltenywicz and just ahead of Jameson Taillon. That’s “very good #3 or serviceable #2” range, not “ace” range.

Cool Lester Smooth
Member
Cool Lester Smooth

24 people don’t know the scouting definition of ace, haha!

Over the last 3 years, Paxton’s been 14th in FIP-WAR and 42nd in RA9-WAR. If you want to crudely split the difference, that comes to 28th overall – firmly a #2 guy.

Especially since innings matter, when it comes to acedom.

asuray
Member
asuray

An “ace” and a #1 SP aren’t necessarily the same thing. An “ace” is someone you can rely on every five days to limit the opposing offense the very little production. Paxton has the performance, but he can’t be relied upon. He has averaged ~140 IP per season over the last three years. I can’t call someone with that light of a workload an “ace.”

Larry Bernandez
Member
Larry Bernandez

“On the 2018 WAR list, Paxton finished just behind Mike Foltenywicz and just ahead of Jameson Taillon. That’s “very good #3 or serviceable #2” range, not “ace” range.”

But he finished ahead of Kershaw, who you listed as an ace. Last year Kershaw and Paxton put up identical WAR. So Paxton has been more valuable than Kershaw for the past two years. How is Kershaw an ace but not Paxton?

Cool Lester Smooth
Member
Cool Lester Smooth

Start with the fact that we know, not think, that Kershaw has a greater impact on batted ball outcomes than FIP attributes to him.

Larry Bernandez
Member
Larry Bernandez

How do we know that?

Only a year or two ago, there would have been no debate that Kershaw is a top-tier ace. But I think the current version of Kershaw is a lot different than what we’re used to. He lost 2MPH on his fastball. From 2009 – 2017 opposing batters hit between .207 and .268 against his fastball. This year it was .290.

Kershaw is still elite. All of this is to say that if your list of aces includes Kershaw, it should probably include Paxton as well.

Cool Lester Smooth
Member
Cool Lester Smooth

…and thus his BABIP rose all the way to .267, as he outperformed his FIP by 0.46 runs (his career gap is 0.25) while throwing more innings than Paxton has ever managed in his MLB career.

There’s a stronger argument to be made for saying Kershaw’s no longer a true ace (top 7-12 pitcher in the MLB) than that Paxton is one, even as Kershaw is still meaningfully better than Paxton.

emh1969
Member
emh1969

“If James Paxton is a # 2, then there are no # 1s. Come on, Paxton is an Ace. Through and through.”

Really dislike comments like this one. It shuts down any sort of discussion. At least lay out your definition of what makes someone an ace and then show us how Paxton meets that definition. Otherwise, your statement is basically like the classic definition of porn….