The New York Yankees want to take the next step in 2019, and there was only one place to start this offseason: the starting rotation.
While fans were ending their nine to five grind, general manager Brian Cashman did just that. Monday afternoon, the Yankees acquired James Paxton – the Seattle Mariners’ de facto ace – for a package highlighted by top pitching prospect Justus Sheffield, who heads west with minor league hurler Erik Swanson and outfielder Dom Thompson-Williams.
The decision to put Paxton in pinstripes was a no-brainer for a team that just saw their most hated rivals eliminate them on their home field and hoist the Commisioner’s Trophy at season’s end.
Despite Luis Severino‘s first half success, which was highlighted by his second straight All-Star selection, the homegrown youngster faltered when it mattered most. Over the second half of 2018, the 24-year-old pitched to a 5.57 ERA while opposing hitters sported an OPS of .821 against him. His struggles – largely attributed to tipping pitches – were highlighted in the postseason, where Severino pitched in just seven innings over two starts, allowing nine hits and six walks along the way. Masahiro Tanaka was the anti-Severino a year ago, as his first half struggles were forgiven when he pitched to much success over the home stretch and into the playoffs. But his partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow will be a dark cloud hanging above Yankee Stadium and a ticking timebomb that must be treated with care.
CC Sabathia re-upped with the Yankees during the early stages of free agency and will reprise his role as elder statesman and clubhouse leader. Despite his newfound success, the veteran southpaw will be relegated to back-end of the rotation duties, due to his age (38), knee issues and the organization’s reluctance to have him pitch through a lineup more than two times. The final spot of the rotation remains up for grabs, with Cashman apparently open to pursue another arm via free agency or trade.
But no matter who the Yankees bring in to complete their starting staff, Paxton will be heavily relied upon at the top of it.
The Canadian left-hander is a six-year veteran and has slowly emerged in Seattle as one of the top pitchers in the American League over the last three seasons. 2017 was Paxton’s best year to date, as he pitched to a 2.98 ERA with a .221 BAA and 1.10 WHIP in 136 innings of work.
Paxton’s 2018 wasn’t exactly bad, either. He reached career highs in starts (28), innings pitched (160.1), strikeouts (208) and strikeouts per nine innings (11.7) while sporting an FIP of 3.23 and a 3.8 WAR. Paxton ranked third behind Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander last season in fastball swing and miss percentage and led all MLB starters who had a strikeout percentage above 30% and a walk percentage below 7%. Between 2016 through 2018, Paxton was in the upper echelon in categories such as velocity, FIP, K-BB% and xwOBA.
Of course, this trade doesn’t come without risk.
Paxton does come with some injury concerns. He’s missed time in each of the last five seasons, including injuries to his forearm, pectoral muscle and back, amongst others. There’s also the fact that Paxton’s ground ball rate has been on a steady decline over the past three seasons, resulting in an uptick in home runs. That can fly in spacious ballparks in the American League West but it remains to be seen how that will look at Fenway Park, Camden Yards, Tropicana Field and the Rogers Centre.
Then there’s the factor of what Cashman had to give Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto in exchange for his star hurler.
Dom Thompson-Williams may have not been featured on many prospect lists and rankings but that doesn’t negate the success he found in 2018. The 24-year-old center fielder played in his first full season between A and High-A ball, slashing an impressive .299/.363/.546 in 100 games. Thompson-Williams also flashed his unique blend of strength and speed, as he hit 22 home runs and drove in 74 RBI while stealing 20 bases.
Erik Swanson, a right-handed starter originally acquired in the Carlos Beltran trade two seasons ago, made a name for himself as an up and coming starter in the Yankees’ deep farm system. He, too, had his best season to date: dominating AA with the Trenton Thunder, as he pitched to a 0.42 ERA in seven starts while striking out 11.6 batters and allowing less than five hits per nine innings. His numbers came back down to earth once Swanson earned a promotion to AAA but he still struck out 78 batters to just 14 walks and had a WHIP of 1.06.
But both Thompson-Williams and Swanson had supporting roles in this blockbuster. For the Mariners, it’s Justus Sheffield who is the top star.
And that’s for good reason. Sheffield was the Yankees’ top pitching prospect – and arguably their best overall minor league talent – throughout the duration of this past year. He came to the organization as one of the top prizes in the Andrew Miller trade in 2016 and was looked at as someone who could one day team with Severino atop the rotation for seasons to come.
On the surface, Sheffield’s numbers supported that claim. After biding some time in AA to start the season, the lefty and his 2.25 ERA and 39 punch-outs in 28 innings made his way to Scranton to join the Triple-A RailRiders, the final pit stop before the Bronx. Sheffield continued to prosper, making 15 starts, allowing just three home runs in 88 innings of work and handcuffed opposing hitters with a .203 BAA.
But Scranton is also where the alarms began to go off.
Sheffield’s persistent issues with fastball command haunted him in Triple-A. Not only did he average almost four walks per nine innings, but of that problem with location, he failed to pitch deep into games. Sheffield’s lack of development not only changed his career trajectory (the organization viewed his as a three starter max at the end of 2018, according to one source) but also took him off the untouchable list.
It is without a doubt a calculated gamble, but it was one Cashman and the Yankees had to make.
The aforementioned injury concerns will remain; so does the fact that Paxton has two years of control left and, despite being 30, doesn’t have a lot of mileage on his arm.
His ability to pitch in a market as unique as New York will naturally come into question; what won’t is the success he’s had in his career against the Boston Red Sox (career 2.49 ERA, 0.91 WHIP) and Houston Astros (career .230 BAA, .605 OPS), the two powerhouse franchises that will stand in the Yankees’ way next year.
People will question whether or not Sheffield should’ve been traded for someone with a ton of question marks. And it’s a fair question. That said, those same people must remember not only did the Yankees sell high with Sheffield, but they were able to retain the necessary prospects to not only potentially make up for the loss but to also potentially target additional high-end pitchers this offseason. The stove is only getting hot now; there’s no reason to think Cashman is done making moves.
The Yankees have been preparing for the future since August 1, 2016. In two short years, they completely retooled their farm system, saw homegrown prospects mature into MLB superstars and set themselves up as well as anyone for success down the road.
The Yankees are now down that road. That’s the biggest reason why Paxton is now in pinstripes.
Dan Federico is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.