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One Big Question: When will James Paxton be ready to contribute?

The first step in James Paxton’s comeback journey will be returning to the mound after Tommy John surgery. When can the Red Sox expect him to do that?

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Chicago White Sox v Seattle Mariners Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the Boston Red Sox 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, at least as things are scheduled right now. Obviously, the lockout may change the timing of the season, and it also means we will likely see more additions of new faces. If need be, we will add some weekend posts to fit any and all additions to the 40-man before Opening Day. You can catch up with every post by following this link. With that written, today we cover James Paxton.

The Question: When will James Paxton be ready to contribute?

Although James Paxton signed with the Red Sox during this offseason, he’s someone who would have been a great addition in previous ones. Following their World Series title in 2018, the Red Sox could certainly have used him during their title defense, but the left-hander ultimately signed with the New York Yankees. Paxton could have also been a decent fit entering the 2021 season since nobody knew the Red Sox’s rotation would hold together so well following the debacle of 2020.

Well, even if it took a few tries, Paxton is finally a member of the Red Sox, but what the Red Sox can actually expect from him, or, more importantly, when they can expect it is a question shrouded in mystery, but not in the fun way like in a blockbuster thriller.

Paxton’s career has been marred by injuries. During his largely excellent run with the Seattle Mariners form 2013 to 2018, Paxton could never really kick the injury bug, spending time on the disabled list quite frequently. However, in between those stints, Paxton was a really good pitcher. In his first six seasons in Seattle, he posted a 117 ERA+, a 3.13 FIP and 617 strikeouts in 582 13 innings of work. In addition, between 2016 and 2019, he was a 3.5-win pitcher or better every season, with the 2019 campaign coming during his reboot with the Yankees. During that stretch, it looked like the man nicknamed the Big Maple had finally become the ace the Mariners (and then the Yankees) needed. All throughout 2019, the Red Sox, who could have made a run at Paxton, had to sit and watch the Yankees reap the benefits of taking a chance on Paxton for 2019, and now they’re taking a chance of their own, but it’s a much bigger gamble.

After proving to be one of the most consistently effective starting pitchers in baseball from 2016 to 2019, even if there were some DL visits along the way, Paxton’s luck with injuries took a disastrous turn in 2020. An operation on his back cost Paxton a large chunk of what ended up being a protracted season, as he logged all of 20 13 innings while making five starts in 2020. Unfortunately, while he had always been effective following injuries before, Paxton didn’t show the same resiliency in 2020, as his average fastball velocity fell by three miles per hour compared with 2019, according to FanGraphs, while his overall effectiveness evaporated, leading him to finish the season with a 65 ERA+ and a 6.64 ERA.

Heading into the 2021 season, Paxton’s first team, the Mariners, decided to give an old hero a chance, bringing him back on a one-year deal. Unfortunately, during what turned out to be a surprisingly competitive season for the Mariners, Paxton made pretty much zero impact. He made his season debut against the Chicago White Sox on April 6, but was out of the game after just 1 13 innings. He would have Tommy John surgery just a few weeks later, putting him on the shelf for all of 2021 and making his prospects for 2022 looking pretty bleak. Luckily for Paxton, bleak doesn’t mean nonexistent, and the Red Sox opted to bet on his ability to recover and return to some semblance of his former self in Boston.

New York Yankees v Seattle Mariners Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

The Red Sox signed Paxton to a one-year deal worth $10 million before the lockout began, and that deal also has a club option for the 2023 and 2024 seasons, so if everything goes swimmingly, Paxton could be a part of the Red Sox’s pitching staff for a solid chunk of time. In fact, at 33 years old, it’s entirely possible that he could end up retiring with Boston, although let’s hope that moment comes much further down the line. For things to get to that swimmingly status, Paxton has to get on the mound and pitch, of course, and that really is the biggest question surrounding his 2022 season: When will be be able to get on the field? With the lockout eating into the regular season already and no real resolution in sight, that’s really the question for every player right now, but as we continue to be hopelessly (and probably foolishly) optimistic that baseball will be played this year, let’s look at what we can expect in terms of a timetable for Paxton’s return and what that might mean for what we can expect him to contribute.

Paxton’s Tommy John surgery took place in April of last year and players usually need one to two years to really bounce back from the operation. For example, Chris Sale’s Tommy John surgery occurred in March of 2020 and he made his first MLB start in mid-August of 2021, although he made a few much hyped appearances in the minors before then. What worked for Sale won’t necessarily work for Paxton, so we can’t just assume the same timetable, but Sale’s path to recovery does grant at least a bit of an indication. Based on that timeline, Paxton probably won’t be ready to go until the end of August at the earliest, and that’s if everything goes smoothly. Should any setbacks occur, the Red Sox could be looking at an entirely lost season from Paxton.

If everything goes according to plan, though, we’re pretty much looking at about a month of Paxton (not including any potential playoff run), which may not seem like enough time for him to make a huge impact, but much like the Red Sox felt last year, getting back a potential top of the rotation starter from injury in the late summer to help during the stretch run could be just like trading for one, just without the need to give up prospects or draft picks in a deal.

Now, once Paxton is back, figuring out what he’ll actually bring to the table is a bit more tricky. It’s been three years since he’s pitched a full season (although that’s not something he’ll be doing this year anyway), but it’s also been three years since he’s looked like an effective starter. So, while the biggest question facing Paxton this year is about when he can contribute, determining what he can contribute will be the bigger question for his future with the Red Sox and at the MLB level overall.

Statistics in this post from FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.