The Red Sox announced that lefty James Paxton has triggered his $4MM player option, sticking with the club for 2023.
Paxton, 34, has oscillated back and forth in his career between excellent results and injury setbacks. He was drafted by the Mariners and pitched for them from 2013 to 2018. In those six seasons, he never posted an ERA higher than 3.90 but also never stayed healthy for a full season, topping out at 28 starts and 160 1/3 innings in his last year in Seattle. After being traded to the Yankees prior to 2019, he had another solid season, though again limited by injuries. He made 29 starts for the Yanks and tossed 150 2/3 innings, posting an ERA of 3.82.
The injury issues have only gotten worse since then, as the lefty was limited to just five starts and 20 1/3 innings in 2020 due to a left flexor strain. He reached free agency after that campaign and signed a deal to return to Seattle for 2021. He made only one appearance, throwing just 1 1/3 innings, before being shut down and eventually requiring Tommy John surgery.
Going into 2022, his status was uncertain. He was definitely going to miss some time, but it was possible he could be recovered from the TJS in time to contribute to a team down the stretch. He and the Sox agreed to a convoluted deal that reflected that uncertainty. Paxton earned a $6MM salary in 2022, with the convoluted part coming after that. First, the Red Sox would have to decide whether or not to trigger a two-year club option that would pay Paxton $26MM, with a $13MM salary in both 2023 and 2024. If they declined, Paxton would have the ability to trigger a one-year, $4MM option for 2023.
That structure seemed to take into account the wide variance of potential outcomes. If Paxton were able to return and show some of his previous excellent results, the Sox would be rewarded for taking the gamble by getting to lock him down for another two years. If things went the other way, their obligations would be significantly less but Paxton had a safety net in there for himself.
The latter scenario was what ended up happening in 2022, as Paxton suffered a lat strain during his rehab and never made it back to the active roster. Now the southpaw is in the position of having missed an entire season as well as only logging 21 2/3 innings over the past three seasons combined. That made it a fairly easy call for Boston to turn down their option as opposed to committing to Paxton for another two years. That decision was indeed confirmed on Monday.
That put the onus on Paxton to decide whether or not to lock in a $4MM guarantee for 2023. On the one hand, after three straight effectively lost seasons, it’s probably difficult to turn down cash on the barrel like that. On the other hand, Paxton got himself a $10MM guarantee last offseason when it was known that he was going to miss at least part of the year. In the end, he decided to opt for the proverbial bird in the hand as opposed to seeing what other creative deals he could find on the open market.
This decision could potentially work out for both parties in 2023, given the uncertainty in the Boston rotation. Nathan Eovaldi, Michael Wacha and Rich Hill have just become free agents, leaving some big holes in the rotation. Chris Sale declined his opt-out and will remain with the club next year, though he’s tough to rely on right now. Similar to Paxton, various injuries have limited him to 48 1/3 total innings over the past three seasons. He will surely have a role but might not be able to log over 200 frames like he has done in the past. That leaves Nick Pivetta as the most reliable member for next year, with some wild card options like Tanner Houck, Garrett Whitlock and Brayan Bello in the mix.
With all of that uncertainty, it’s likely that Paxton will be given a chance to make some starts and re-establish his health before returning to the open market a year from now. For the Sox, they will get a high-risk, high-reward roll of the dice that would certainly be worth the modest $4MM figure if Paxton’s health can cooperate.