Mariners Have Won the James Paxton Trade

Justus Sheffield beats the Colorado Rockies August 8th. Photo by Ken Lambert/Seattle times.

After Mariners General Manager announced the team’s “step back” in October of 2018, it took little more than a month for him to trade the team’s most marketable commodity, lefty starter James Paxton. Paxton was coming off his best year with 28 starts and 160.1 innings pitched. Paxton was statistically great with 11 wins, a 3.76 ERA, 208 strikeouts and a 1.098 WHIP. He threw a no-hitter at the Blue Jays. More importantly, he’d been able to stay relatively healthy, avoiding the multiple IL stints that dogged most of his career. It was a perfect time to trade him for the most value.

On November 20, 2018 the Yankees cashed in on Paxton’s potential star status by sending the Mariners pitchers Justus Sheffield and Eric Swanson and outfield Don Thompson Williams.

How did it all turn out? 2019, you will recall, was a bit of a bust for the M’s. Not a surprise. The Dipoto “step-back” was a full-scale tear down as he tried to make the M’s younger and more athletic. Veterans like Edwin Encarnacion and Jay Bruce, acquired through trades were quickly farmed out while Mallex Smith and Domingo Santana pretended to play the outfield. The M’s finished with a 68-94 record, which could have been much worse if they hadn’t miraculously rushed out to a 13-2 start.

In Paxton’s first year with the Yankees, the big guy looked pretty good. Only one stint on the DL. Paxton made 29 starts, the most of his career. But in those starts he only amassed 150.1 innings. His ERA, FIP, and WHIP were all elevated (sorry.) His K/BB decreased and he became more homer prone. In three playoff starts the Big Maple amassed a total of 13 innings.

For Sheffield and Swanson the bar was pretty low. And honestly I’m not sure they met it in 2019. Swanson was the the first to arrive with the big league club. He appeared in 27 games, including eight starts. Despite bringing the heat, Swanson mostly got shelled, posting a 5.74 ERA, 5.96 FIP, 76 ERA+, allowing 2.6 HR/9. Yuck. 2020 hasn’t been much better with the big righty sliding to an unsightly 15.19 ERA, 9.52 FIP, and an amazing 5.1 HR/9 in a brief five appearance stint. Don’t know if Eric is done as the M’s shuffle through bullpen pieces, but he might be.

In 2019 Thompson-Williams played for the Arkansas Travellers beside Kyle Lewis, Jarred Kelenic and Jake Fraley. He slashed .238/.298/.391, which was much less than his impressive rostermates. Progress for DTS was stymied when he tore his achilles tendon in February. With an outfield packed full with ROY candidate Kyle Lewis, and top-ranked prospects ,including the addition of Taylor Trammell and Philip Ervin, his path forward for 2020 is at best uncertain.

Sheffield did not look good in 2019. Though he spent some time with the Yankees in 2018, he began the year in Tacoma. Faring poorly against combination of the juiced 2019 ball and the hitter-friendly PCL ballparks, the Mariners sent Sheff to pitcher-friendly Dickey-Stevens Park, home of the AA Arkansas Travelers, where he helped pitch that team into the Texas League series. His performance earned him a September call-up where things didn’t go well. A high ERA was supported by lots of walks, too many homers and just too many pitches for too few innings. If he was going to be a starter in the big leagues, Justus Sheffield was going to have to get better.

With the Covid-shortened season, I suppose I shouldn’t get too excited about anything. Regardless, with a pretty rocky 2019 entree to the big leagues, Sheffield had something to prove. Unfortunately, he has about a third of a season to show whether he should be considered a rotation piece in an organization with tons of highly regarded rotation prospects.

It seems to me that Sheffield has done his part. In his seven starts he’s had four really good ones, and three not so good ones. Overall his stats are acceptable and show considerable growth over his 2019 September showings. His ERA is down to 4.34 from 5.50. His FIP has shrunk from 4.71 to 3.09. His WHIP is at 1.313 from 1.722. His strikeouts are up, his homers and walks are down. This is better. Sheffield’s outings are must-watch. Gone are the long drawn-out pitch-a-thons that plagued him in 2019. He’s become much more efficient and a much tougher at-bat for hitters.

Most importantly, Justus Sheffield has made all his starts. James Paxton has joined the very long Yankee list of wounded on the IL. Though he’s made five starts for the Bronx Bombers, he’s been mostly awful. Career highs in ERA, FIP, WHIP, hits and homers allowed. Not good.

Most importantly, Paxton is a free agent after 2020. Admittedly, it’s a weird, very short year, and one shouldn’t put too much emphasis on the shortened 60 game season. However, there is every possibility that Paxton walks and signs with someone else and the Yankees are left holding an empty bag with a hole in it after 2020. Meanwhile the M’s are hanging on to an improving Sheffield who isn’t even arbitration eligible until 2023.

Mariners win this trade.

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