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A Big Question Mark For Big Maple

James Paxton’s performance remains one of the biggest contingencies of the 2023 roster.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a meme I really like that reads “When your group project gets an A but you didn’t do anything.” While everyone is harping on Chris Sale for his lack of durability, and fairly so, he at least pitched five and two-thirds innings in 2022. While the pitching staff was certainly nothing to write home about, there were some winning factors as well: Brayan Bello overcoming early shakiness, finding a bit of his control and his place in the rotation; Garrett Whitlock continuing to be dependable; and John Schreiber rising from obscurity to become a formidable back-end reliever. Of course, the team still blew an absurd amount of saves... so it’s really “When your group project gets a C- and you don’t have anyone’s number to find out when the make-up date is.”

The date is April 6, 2021. James Paxton has thrown 24 pitches as the starter of the Seattle Mariners and his arm gives out. It would be three weeks until his Tommy John surgery, and two years until he’s deemed available to pitch for the Boston Red Sox. He’s opted to earn $4 million this year despite his injury and the subsequent grade 2 lateral tear he suffered in a rehab start on his way back. It almost seems like James Paxton is destined to never make an impact on a Boston pitching staff that sorely needs his skillset. But, if his performance before his injuries is any indication, he can become just the asset the Red Sox need. Provided, of course, he stay healthy... which may be asking a lot.

Fun fact about James Paxton: his strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate increased every single year between 2014 and 2018. He also earned at least 11 wins every year from 2017 to 2019, before the injuries derailed him. I tend to not count 2020 against anyone due to... well, the state of things (If you boo me, I better not hear any defense of J.D.’s 2020!)

Another fun fact about 2019: It was four years ago. In a pandemic world, four years ago seems like a lifetime. Rick Porcello was on the Red Sox in 2019. Tom Brady was a Patriot, and not in any reputable limbo of leaving the team. The word “booster” would remind most people of carseats instead of vaccines. Doesn’t that feel like a long time ago? That’s how long ago James Paxton was considered a viable option in a Major League rotation. But still, Paxton’s notable size, his equally notable ground ball percentage, and his 3.6 career strikeout-to-walk ratio leaves a faithful Red Sox fan hoping for even something resembling that. I’ll gladly watch a guy whose ERA hovers around 3.50 with a WAR topping 3 over some of the guys we’ve trotted out to the mound the last couple of years, thank you very much!

Of course, it’s entirely possible that James Paxton is just one in a long line of acquisitions Chaim Bloom has made for injury-prone players with a glimmer of hope that end up just being that cool looking shell near the ocean you hold up to your ear that doesn’t actually make any wave noise once it’s in your home. To be fair to Bloom, that Paxton suffered a tear in his first pitching performance since his Tommy John surgery was certainly not anything but a stroke of bad luck. But this was someone who was riddled with minor injuries for the previous couple of seasons. Maybe bad luck is to be expected.

If $10 million felt like a steal for a second starter who, simply put, gets guys out, $4 million for a guy like that in the middle of the rotation should leave people jumping up and down. Though Nick Pivetta’s 2022 numbers came in about 20% higher than Paxton’s 2019 in most categories, people still applaud him for his grit in staying healthy throughout the season in a rotation full of tribulations and injuries. Chris Sale, who has a similar injury history and is about 4 months younger than James Paxton, will be making multiple times the amount of money this year. We, as a fanbase, can’t have hope for one without having hope for the other.

Let’s take a utopian trip that includes Paxton and Sale both staying healthy. Garrett Whitlock, and for that matter, Tanner Houck, can each maintain one role throughout the season. Worcester players won’t be elevated to the major league roster to fail too early. Guys like Ryan Brasier won’t be trotted out in late-game high-leverage situation. Hansel Robles? Never heard of him. Boy, I can’t wait to ride down to Polar Park in Downtown Worcester after work to see Kaleb Ort make a ninth-inning appearance in Anywhere But Fenway Park! Sound good to you? Well, it just requires two guys with a combined 48 innings pitched and four surgeries between them in the last two seasons to do the impossible and just please stay healthy.