John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
The Yankees could have been content to re-sign J.A. Happ, who proved to be reliable in pinstripes last year. And maybe they will still do just that, but in trading for the Mariners' James Paxton on Monday, GM Brian Cashman went for the higher ceiling for an obvious reason:
He needs somebody to beat the Red Sox in October.
He needs somebody to make the Yankees champions again.
After all, the feel-good vibe in the Bronx that came with the rise of the Baby Bombers and the rebuild-on-the-fly is old news these days. Getting waxed by the Sox in the postseason and finishing second to their arch rivals in the AL East for a third straight season has ramped up expectations to skyscraper levels.
Happ was a nice pickup last summer, but he lasted two-plus innings in Game 1 of the ALDS, setting the tone for a series that exposed the Yankees' flaws.
So on Monday, Cashman took a leap of faith on the injury-prone Paxton, giving up the once-untouchable Justus Sheffield in the trade with the Mariners.
Why not? More so than Happ, even more so than Patrick Corbin, the top free-agent starter whom the Yankees will still pursue, the lefty Paxton has the potential to dominate any lineup at any time with his varied arsenal of electric stuff.
Or as an American League scout told me Monday night, "When he's on his game, he's as good as anybody -- [Justin] Verlander, [Chris] Sale, [Max] Scherzer, you name it. He's on that list of true aces, and there are only about 10 of them in the big leagues.
"But he's been injury-prone and last year it was a little shocking how many home runs he gave up. His mistakes got hammered."
In addition, Paxton has to prove he can pitch in a big-market setting, though he was so famously unfazed by an eagle landing on his shoulder during a pregame ceremony last year that you have to like his composure quotient.
In any case, yes, the trade comes with some risk for the Yankees. It doesn't compare to the potential reward, considering they paid a relatively low price.
Perhaps Sheffield, their top pitching prospect, will prove otherwise in the coming years, but in truth, there were indications the Yankees had lost a bit of confidence in him, based on the command issues that stalled his career a bit in Triple-A last year.
There was a reason, remember, the Yankees called up Jonathan Loaisiga from Double-A Trenton instead of Sheffield last spring when they needed a starter, and likewise when they kept fellow lefty call-up Stephen Tarpley on the postseason roster instead of him.
Mainly, they didn't trust him to throw enough strikes, as evidenced by the 50 walks he issued in 116 minor-league innings last season.
Of course, Sheffield is only 22, turning 23 in May, so he's still plenty young enough to harness his control, but even then, scouts see him as more of a middle-of-the-rotation starter than a No. 1 or No. 2.
And the win-now Yankees couldn't afford to gamble that the kid would suddenly blossom.
Meanwhile, neither of the other two minor-leaguers in the trade -- pitcher Erik Swanson and outfielder Dom Thompson-Williams -- is considered a big-time prospect.
As for the Mariners, they were willing to take a chance on Sheffield because Paxton is two years away from a big payday as a free agent, and their GM, Jerry DiPoto, has decided they need to rebuild, to some extent anyway.
If there's a surprise, it's that there wasn't enough multi-team bidding to raise the price higher on Paxton. But certainly his injuries, which have significantly limited his innings in each of his big-league seasons, was a factor.
Indeed, Paxton's total of 160 1/3 innings last season was a career high, and at age 30 he has yet to have a completely healthy season. The good news for the Yankees is that he has avoided significant injuries to his elbow or shoulder; still, he has missed time due to everything from a back problem to a pectoral strain to a finger injury to a lat strain to a couple of line drives off his pitching arm.
Paxton also gave up 23 home runs last season during those 160 innings, while pitching to a 3.67 ERA, and according to stats whiz Katie Sharp of The Athletic, he had the third highest-hard-hit rate of all starters in the majors, at 42 percent.
On the other hand, Paxton last season was one of only six starters with a strikeout rate above 30 percent and a walk rate below 7 percent, along with brand names Jacob deGrom, Sale, Scherzer, Verlander and Corbin.
Finally, with 209 strikeouts last season, he had a career-best 32.2 percent K rate, the fifth best in the majors.
So as the scout said, when he's on, Paxton can be as dominant as any pitcher in baseball. Simply put, the Yankees are willing to bet he'll find that on-switch come October.