While we wait for the Red Sox to do something — anything! — to address their very clear needs on the pitching staff, we at least have some idea of what they could be looking for. They have not been connected at all to the top name on the free agent list in Trevor Bauer, probably because they don’t appear all that likely to give up their second round pick for any of the free agents available for whom that would be part of the cost. They have, however, been connected to some of the pitchers in the next tier down. Tomoyuki Sugano, who is coming stateside this year after pitching in Japan previously, is probably tops among those names, while Jake Odorizzi and Corey Kluber have been connected to Boston as well.
From the outside at least, it seems that Kluber has been one of the names that just keeps coming up. Some of that, to be fair, is speculation rather than reported interest, though there has been both. And it makes sense on a few different levels. The former Cy Young winner isn’t a long-term commitment, and the upside is about as high as it is for anyone else available. Plus, he makes his winter home in Massachusetts. But what if he signs elsewhere? Could there be a similar kind of target out there with near-ace upside whose market will be depressed due to recent injuries? There is, which you know because you read the headline. I’m talking about James Paxton.
Paxton first got to the majors back in 2013 when he was with the Mariners, the organization that originally drafted him. The southpaw made a few starts that year, and was a fixture in their rotation moving forward through the 2018 season. By the end of his run in Seattle, he had turned into something pretty damn close to an ace, with three consecutive above-average seasons by ERA- and three consecutive well above-average seasons by FIP-. He found some extra velocity and started striking batters out at a rate that put him among the elite bat-missers among starters in all of baseball towards the end of his Mariners career as well.
Then, prior to 2019, the Yankees swept in and made a trade to put Paxton in pinstripes. The lefty has spent the last two years with New York, not quite being able to find that next level but still pitching well, particularly in 2019. That season he once again racked up strikeouts — just under 30 percent on a rate basis — and finished with an ERA- and FIP- of 83, meaning he was 17 percent better than league-average in both stats. Last season was a little rougher as he never found his consistency and finished with an ugly 150 ERA- in five starts, though his 96 FIP- suggests he should have been significantly better.
Either way, while Paxton has continued to show elite strikeout stuff and has mostly put up the results to match throughout his career, there is a big red flag here with his health. The lefty, to put it simply, has basically never been able to stay healthy. Over his entire major-league career, he has never made 30 starts and he has never pitched more than 160 1⁄3 innings. Last season his year ended with a flexor strain in his throwing elbow, casting some doubt even on his current health.
We’ve had this conversation regarding the Red Sox rotation before, but if you are looking for a solid innings-eater rather than fishing for upside — not an unfair viewpoint! — then Paxton is very much not for you.
On the other hand, if the Red Sox are looking at someone like Kluber, who himself has a total of 36 2⁄3 innings over the last two seasons combined, then the Red Sox seem comfortable with the risk if the upside is high enough. And with Paxton, I would argue it is. As I said, the strikeout stuff has always been there, and even in his down 2020 his fastball velocity was still at 95 mph, right at his career norm, and he was striking out 29 percent of his opponents. Most of his struggles came as a result of batted ball luck.
Beyond health, there are some other issues with Paxton as well. He’s started to allow more and more home runs as his career has gone on, and while some of that likely has to do with home runs trending up all around the league, it’s still a worrying trend line for someone entering his age-32 season. He’s also a lefty, and the Red Sox could already have Eduardo Rodriguez and Chris Sale at the top of their rotation at some point in the year. Personally, I’m not someone who worries about handedness too much for the rotation — you have to be good against everyone if you’re a good starting pitcher, regardless of your own handedness — but I know some people do think about that stuff, so it had to be mentioned.
At the end of the day, I still prefer Kluber in this vein of pitchers coming off of injury, but there are going to be a lot of teams interested in him. You need a backup plan, and Paxton could be that guy. It obviously depends on what the medical staff says about his elbow, but if that clears then it’s worth considering at the right price. To that end, MLB Trade Rumors projects a one-year deal worth $10 million, while FanGraphs readers have predicted a two-year deal worth $15 million. If the latter is closer to correct, I move on my merry way. The injury risk is too great and Paxton doesn’t quite move the needle enough for me to take a risk on a multi-year deal here. However, if he does end up going after a one-year pillow deal, sign me up for Paxton as the Kluber fallback option.