If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.
Long before erasing Sonny Gray from memory, the Yankees pulled off a similarly wishful trade for James Paxton with the hope that he will succeed where Gray could not -- by ascending to the top of the club's rotation depth chart. The Yankees were mistaken with Gray and the team absolutely cannot endure a repeat experience with the 30-year-old Paxton.
We've already described why Luis Severino might not be able to carry the Yankees rotation alone, and as such, Paxton's performance in 2019 is tantamount to the club's success.
Paxton, like Gray, arrives from an easier place to pitch. That's from the perspective of ballpark effects, competition and the pressure aspect of playing for the Yankees. While we might look at the 6-4, 235-pound Paxton as a brooding athlete, until he's locked in against another top hurler in a pennant race, we won't fully know what he's made of as a competitor.
Gray came to New York with outsized expectations and shriveled in many pressure situations.
The good news for the Yankees is that Paxton -- who has more on his shoulders than Gray did -- appears to be a different pitcher and on the right track.
Paxton maintains an upper hand when compared to Gray in that he clearly possesses superior abilities on the mound, having thrown a no-hitter and putting together a third straight strong season in 2018. Paxton can be an intimidating left-hander, demonstrated by a strikeout rate that has increased significantly over the last three seasons (from 8.7 K/9 in 2016 to 11.7 K/9 in 2018).
Paxton baffles hitters with a four-pitch repertoire, but his tendency toward injuries -- he's been on the disabled list seven times since 2014 -- has prevented him completing a full season's worth of starts. While Gray had fine years in Oakland as a youngster, he too battled injuries, but unlike Paxton they began to affect the Gray's production.
Despite some trips to the DL, Paxton has progressed as a pitcher and increased his overall workload year over year since 2016, maxing out at 28 starts (160.1 innings) in 2018. Paxton must produce a fourth straight increase (let's say 30 starts and 180 innings) including a stronger innings per start mark (he averaged 5.2 innings per start in 2018) all while at minimum pitching like a No. 2 starter.
Regardless of how vast and dominant the Yankees bullpen might be considered, the team requires another frontline starter aside from Severino who cannot only make the trip to the mound every five days, but can provide depth in his starts. Based on history -- an extensive one at that -- it is difficult to assume Paxton will succeed in either measure. That said, Paxton is the one pitcher in the rotation besides Severino that is on a path of discernible improvement and has the talent to elevate his game to the next level.
Finally, Paxton has a psychological benefit -- a distinct and important one -- that Gray did not, in that he will have spring training to become acclimated to his surroundings, teammates and the "Yankee way." Gray arrived in a trade deadline deal and despite a solid beginning in pinstripes, he tailed off when it mattered most. Gray quickly fell out of favor with fans during a stretch-run skid in 2017 and he mentally buried himself in 2018.
Right or wrong, Paxton's performance in pinstripes will be compared to Gray's. The Yankees traded solid prospect packages for each pitcher with one thing in mind - landing a front end of the rotation starter to help push the club to a championship. Gray failed, which adds another layer of pressure to Paxton's already lofty expectations.
In terms of talent, Paxton is fully equipped to prevail, but he has to take a difficult next step while pitching in a new environment. Without Paxton excelling alongside Severino, the Yankees will fall short of the rotations of their closest competitors. If Paxton cannot climb the ladder (maybe more like, stay on it), he could suffer the same fate as Gray -- a ticket out of town, which would force the Yankees to try, try again.