With last week’s news that the Mariners may begin a rebuilding process this offseason, there have understandably been questions in recent days about the availability of left-handed starting pitcher James Paxton. While those rumors may have been a bit exaggerated — Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto signaled that he was more inclined to retool than to do a full teardown, and the fact that he went out and acquired budding star Mallex Smith lent credence to that statement — Paxton is arguably Seattle’s most valuable asset, and it’d be hard to downsize in any way without at least exploring the possibility of moving him. Per The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, the market for Paxton is already “active”:
#Astros on list of teams talking to #Mariners about a trade for LHP James Paxton, sources say. Market described as “active,” including HOU, NYY and a wide variety of other clubs. Paxton in his career against HOU: 2.89 ERA in 71 2/3 innings, .605 opponents’ OPS.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) November 11, 2018
The 30-year-old Paxton is somewhere on the borderline of “ace” territory, having posted a 3.76 ERA and 1.10 WHIP with 208 strikeouts and 42 walks over 160.1 innings this year. He has a career ERA of 3.42 and a WHIP of 1.19, and he’s never had an ERA above 4.00 or a WHIP above 1.50 in a single season over six years as a big-leaguer. And with front offices being more frugal across the board than they’ve been in a long while, he figures to be a relative bargain — he has two years of arbitration remaining and made $4.9 million in 2018.
Paxton has the ability to pop off and pitch like he’s Sandy Koufax or Steve Carlton in any given start — he tied for the major-league lead with two complete games and one shutout in 2018 — but he’s never really been exceptionally consistent. He also has significant durability issues, as the 160.1 innings he threw this year were a career high, and he’s spent time on the DL in five of his six major-league seasons. Though Paxton has ace-like stuff in a league that has fewer effective starting pitchers than it’s had in a long while, it wouldn’t make much sense for the Mariners to treat him as a true untouchable, especially considering their current situation, his durability issues, and the fact that he’s just going to keep getting more expensive.
Here are the notable suitors for Paxton, along with some commentary on how good of a match each would be for “The Big Maple”:
The Braves — who the media has already connected to starters potentially on the trade marker such as Madison Bumgarner, Corey Kluber, and Carlos Martinez — would also provide a solid landing spot for Paxton. While they’ve already got a glut of young starting pitching depth and added a trusty veteran when they acquired Kevin Gausman from the Orioles at the deadline, they still lack a true No. 1 (unless you believe that Mike Foltynewicz fits that bill), and they’ll surely be looking for an ace to help vault them into the top tier of World Series contenders next season. Yes, it’s debatable that Paxton really fits that ace description for a winning team, judging by his previous inability to throw extended innings and his many DL stints. But in terms of his consistency when he’s actually on the mound, there’s a very strong argument to be made that he’s more reliable than everyone who’s currently in Atlanta’s rotation, and for that reason they should explore a deal.
The Rockies haven’t gone out and acquired a starting pitcher as established as Paxton in a long, long while, and there’s little reason to believe that anything will change this offseason, especially since they’ve finally assembled a collection of young starting pitching depth, anchored by Kyle Freeland and German Marquez, both of whom should have been borderline Cy Young candidates in 2018. However, 2019 could be their last chance to win with this current position-player core — Nolan Arenado is scheduled to hit free agency after the season, and Charlie Blackmon seems to be on the decline — so perhaps they’ll make an extra effort to ensure that they can outlast teams like the Dodgers and Braves in next year’s playoffs. Predicting how pitchers will adjust to Coors Field is essentially impossible, but it seems like a solid bet that Paxton would do a good job of complementing Freeland and Marquez in Colorado.
The Astros are a logical fit for a multitude of reasons. Lance McCullers Jr. will miss the entire 2019 season due to Tommy John surgery, Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton are both free agents this offseason and are unlikely to return, while Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole will hit free agency next winter. Houston has potential replacements in swingmen Collin McHugh, Brad Peacock, and Josh James, as well as top prospect Forrest Whitley, but obviously none of those pitchers are as proven as Paxton, and he’d be a clear upgrade for a team that is in obvious “win-now” mode. Houston’s farm system isn’t as deep as it once was now that they’ve traded for veterans like Verlander and Cole, but they’ve still got four top-100 prospects in Whitley, James, and outfielders Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez. As they’re forced to monitor their budget more carefully with their homegrown players getting older, it’d be understandable if they wanted to hold onto the elite prospects they have left. But if they’re willing to trade any of those guys, they’d have more than enough talent to assemble a competitive package for Paxton.
It’s fair to point out that Seattle might be somewhat cautious about sending Paxton to a division rival — and perhaps more significantly, Houston might be concerned about sending high-upside guys like Tucker and Whitley to Seattle. But Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto has shown a willingness to trade with divisional rivals, swapping sending Emilio Pagan to Oakland for Ryon Healy last winter. (And really, is anything going to deter Dipoto from making a trade?) The Astros are one of two teams that were specifically described as being interested in Paxton by Rosenthal on Sunday.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers don’t seem to be that strong of a suitor for Paxton, since they’ll go into next season with Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-jin Ryu, Walker Buehler, Rich Hill, Julio Urias, Alex Wood, Ross Stripling, among a host of less prominent others, as potential rotation options. They need to focus more energy on strengthening their bullpen and finding a catcher, so it’d seem foolish to expend resources on another starter. They do have the types of players that Seattle would likely covet if they are looking to make a move, though, with Alex Verdugo, Andrew Toles, Kyle Farmer, and whichever starting pitchers don’t figure into the rotation being guys who have major-league talent but probably don’t figure too strongly into LA’s long-term plans. If the Dodgers are looking to pare down their surplus of position-player talent and create more consistency in the lineup, a Paxton trade could be one way to do so.
It’s quite frankly pretty hard to imagine the Brewers making a run at Paxton, first of all because they leaned so heavily into their strategy of pitcher flexibility and not having defined roles — even in the starting rotation — in 2018, and second of all because they’ve depleted their farm system over the last year to the point where they would probably need to trade a player with major-league experience in order to acquire Paxton. That’s not to say they wouldn’t do so — they traded players like Lewis Brinson, Brett Phillips, and Jorge Lopez over the last year who fell into that category — but with most of their remaining high-upside young guys being pitchers like Freddy Peralta and Corbin Burnes, they may not want to trade a young, cheap pitcher who has already had success in the majors in order to acquire an older, more expensive starter who is more entrenched in his role and has been injury-prone throughout his career. With all that said, they were a team that was on the cusp of the World Series last year but ultimately fell short because of their lack of good pitching, so perhaps they’ll shake things up and acquire a more established starter this ofseason.
The Yankees’ rotation picture for 2019 is a bit clearer now that they’ve re-signed CC Sabathia, as they’ll be bringing back Luis Severino and Masahiro Tanaka as their top two next season and will have homegrown arms such as Justus Sheffield, Chance Adams, Jonathan Loaisiga, Domingo German, and Jordan Montgomery as back-of-the-rotation options. With that said, they could really still use another proven ace-type starter, and Paxton should be added to the group of guys being bandied about, which already includes trade candidates Madison Bumgarner, Carlos Carrasco, and Corey Kluber and free agents Patrick Corbin and J.A. Happ. Dipoto and Cashman have dealt quite a bit in the past, and Dipoto in particular seems to be a fan of former Yankees pitchers, seeing as the Mariners utilized former Yanks James Pazos, Wade LeBlanc, Adam Warren, and Nick Rumbelow in 2018. The Yankees have plenty of major-league-ready young players who don’t necessarily fit into their long-term plans — Clint Frazier, Tyler Wade, and the previously-mentioned starting pitching prospects could all be guys that fit that description — and with Seattle seemingly coveting those types of players at the moment, the Yankees might be the most logical trade partner for Big Maple. The Yankees were the other team that Rosenthal specifically mentioned as a suitor for Paxton.
Paxton would be a pretty good fit with the Phillies, as he’d improve Philadelphia’s rotation, which currently features enigmatic starters like Vince Velasquez and Zach Eflin at the back end, but wouldn’t have to bear the responsibility of being the “ace,” as Aaron Nola already fills that role. Philadelphia isn’t exactly loaded with excess talent, but players like Scott Kingery, Nick Williams, Aaron Altherr, and Roman Quinn who may end up being replaced by free-agent acquisitions this offseason could intrigue the Mariners. The Phillies also have three top-100 prospects in Sixto Sanchez, Alec Bohm, Adonis Medina (all of whom they’ll presumably be hesitant to trade), but a guy like Mickey Moniak who has been a bust so far but is just 20 years old and two years removed from being a No. 1 overall pick might also be an interesting acquisition for Seattle. With as much willingness as he’s shown to protect his starting pitchers, manager Gabe Kapler might actually be a good fit for Paxton. Ultimately, though, it seems more likely that the Phillies will make their upgrades through free agency rather than the trade market, seeing as they’ve spent the last half-decade being thrifty and accumulating prospects in order to make a serious run around, well, now.
With Bryce Harper likely to depart and the pitching staff having been torn down this past August, it’s unclear what direction the Nationals will look to go in 2019. With the Braves and possibly the Phillies having surpassed the Nats as NL East contenders, they might need to go through a bit of a retooling process — with Max Scherzer and plenty of position-player talent still on the roster, they presumably wouldn’t want to go through a lengthy rebuild. If they do decide to go all-in again in 2019, Paxton could be a guy who could help fill the gaping hole that really existed in their rotation for most of the season, but became even more prominent after they traded Gio Gonzalez in August. They’re going to need more depth than they had in 2018, but Scherzer, Paxton, Stephen Strasburg, Tanner Roark, and Joe Ross would be a pretty solid starting five — certainly the best in the NL East as things stand now. Even if Harper leaves, the Nats still have an excess of young depth in the outfield (Adam Eaton, Michael A. Taylor, Juan Soto, Victor Robles, Andrew Stevenson) and at catcher (Pedro Severino, Spencer Kieboom, Raudy Read), so they would probably be in a position to satisfy Seattle’s needs if they want to make a deal.