Feb. 18: The Mariners have formally announced their one-year deal with Paxton. Right-hander Andres Munoz, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, was placed on the 60-day IL to open a roster spot.
Feb. 13: The Seattle Mariners have an agreement in place with James Paxton, per Chad Dey of Sportsnet650 (via Twitter). The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal confirms the deal. Paxton will make $8.5MM on a one-year deal with bonuses upping the potential value to $10MM, per ESPN’s Jeff Passan (via Twitter). “Big Maple” will earn an additional $750K with 10 games and $750K at 20 games, adds MLB Network’s Jon Heyman. Paxton is represented by the Boras Corporation.
By signing for just one season, Paxton will have the opportunity to prove his good health and return to the open market. It’s no small thing that he’ll get to do so in an environment where he’s comfortable, having made T-Mobile Park his home from 2013 to 2018. Assuming good health, Paxton should have no trouble reaching those performance incentives to make this contract a clean $10MM.
Health hasn’t always been Paxton’s strong suit, of course. Before missing most of 2020 with a left flexor strain, Paxton spent time on the injured list with knee inflammation, left forearm contusions twice, lower back inflammation, a strained pectoral muscle, a left elbow contusion, a strained tendon in his middle finger, as well as twice hitting the shelf in 2014 with a left Latissimus dorsi muscle strain (read: back). He made just five starts for the Yankees this season after 29, 28, 24, and 20 the four years prior. Despite the litany of ailments, Paxton had largely persevered before missing most of 2020.
It’s worth mentioning, the Mariners have been clear about their intentions to run out a six-man rotation in 2021. Still, a healthy season would get Paxton well past the 20 games threshold, and the additional time between starts is more likely to help Paxton make it to 20 games than hurt. The 32-year-old will slot near the top of the Mariners’ rotation along with fellow southpaws Marco Gonzales, Yusei Kikuchi, and Justus Sheffield. Right-handers Chris Flexen and Justin Dunn are expected to round out the six-man crew.
For the Mariners, the deal has little downside. Seattle still has a payroll under $100MM and their long-term flexibility intact. Meanwhile, they get to return Paxton to the team that drafted him in the fourth round of the 2010 draft. He made 102 starts over six seasons for the Mariners, earning himself a reputation as a starter with frontline potential by way of a 3.58 ERA/3.13 FIP over 582 1/3 innings to that point. The Mariners dealt him to the Yankees following the 2018 season for Dom Thompson-Williams, Erik Swanson, and Sheffield. The Mariners will now enjoy at least one season of Paxton and Sheffield in the rotation together.
On the diamond, Paxton has the potential to move the needle for the Mariners. Limited to just 20 1/3 inning in 2020, Paxton entered free agency on the heels of an uninspiring 6.64 ERA. His 90.7 mph opponents’ exit velocity was a career-high, and his average heater dipped by about three miles per hour. A 32.1 percent groundball rate continued a two-year spike in flyball rate, which led to more home runs allowed in the Bronx. Prior to joining the Yankees, however, Paxton had a 44.7 percent groundball rate.
Many of Paxton’s other metrics, however, were more bullish. He registered a 4.37 FIP/3.88 SIERA, typically-strong 28.9 percent strikeout rate and a 7.8 percent walk rate that was better than the league average of 9.2 percent. At this price point, betting on a return to his career norms is a reasonable gamble for the M’s, who continue to position themselves as a potential sleeper in a year when the AL West looks more wide open than ever.