At this point in the offseason, rumors are still simmering. The biggest signings and trades are lurking beneath the surface. While we can busy ourselves with another Rays-Mariners trade here, or an Abraham Almonte signing there, the splashiest news is still to come.
The Yankees, of course, have been linked to pitching thus far. The Patrick Corbin to New York connection seems strong as ever. The Yankees reportedly touched base with Cleveland regarding their front-line starters. With the Mariners potentially contemplating a sell-off as well, the Yankees have been linked to James Paxton.
In terms of free agent adds, Corbin makes abundant sense as the best starter on the market, still seemingly in his prime. On the trade front, I’m not sure there’s a better fit for the Yankees than Paxton. Given Paxton’s mix of high-end upside, contract status, and his ability to fit a need, he makes excellent sense as a primary Yankee trade target.
Paxton is the right fit for the Yankees mainly because of their desire for premium players. At this stage of the contention cycle, the Yankees should absolutely be targeting elite players, athletes that can truly move the needle at a championship level. The Yankees have shown the ability to fill holes using their farm system, whether by promoting the likes of Domingo German or Jonathan Loaisiga, or trading prospects for J.A. Happ and Zach Britton. What’s more difficult to do is to conjure up a top-flight pitcher.
The Yankees’ farm no longer looks likely to produce much elite talent. I wrote earlier this year that the strength of the Yankees’ farm was transitioning from the top towards depth, and that was borne out in FanGraphs’ recently updated farm system rankings. FanGraphs indicates the Yankees are loaded with potentially useful prospects, but very few impact ones.
Enter Paxton. If the Yankees can’t depend on manufacturing a top pitcher with internal resources, and with Corbin the only real option at buying one on the open market, adding someone like Paxton is one of their only chances at bringing in the kind pitcher that would scare another team in a playoff series.
Some may look at Paxton’s track record and doubt he is that kind of pitcher. If you looked just at Paxton’s run prevention numbers (an admittedly important thing to look at), you might miss Paxton’s upside. Paxton’s career ERA+ of 117 is good but not great, and he’s averaged a little under 3 WAR per Baseball Reference the past three years. Those numbers suggest solid mid-rotation stuff, but not potential ace status.
Look deeper, though, and Paxton may be an ace lying in wait. Paxton has always missed bats, and he struck out nearly 12 batters per nine last season. His FIP over the past three seasons sits at a shiny 2.90. Moreover, in terms of suppressing overall offense, Paxton ranks among the game’s best.
Over the past two seasons, 148 starters have tossed at least 150 innings. Among those 148 starters, Paxton’s .276 wOBA allowed ranks 10th. He ranks just ahead of Noah Syndergaard, Luis Severino, and Stephen Strasburg, and just behind Justin Verlander and Aaron Nola. Paxton’s slash line allowed of .222/.276/.358 puts him right behind the top tier of elite pitchers, not on the level of Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, and Corey Kluber, but firmly among the second tier.
Maybe Paxton’s run prevention numbers have lagged behind his overall figures because of sequencing problems. His OPS allowed ballooned from .585 without men on to .796 with runners on, a split that’s unlikely to persist. Perhaps Paxton’s underperformance has something to do with the Mariners’ defense, which FanGraphs ranked 26th in overall value last year, and 20th in 2017.
Whatever the cause, Paxton profiles as a top pitcher on a rate basis. The projections appear to agree that brighter days are ahead for Paxton, with Steamer’s early 2019 forecasts pegging Paxton for the ninth-highest WAR figure among pitchers.
Given the circumstances, Paxton might offer the Yankees a mulligan on the Gerrit Cole situation from last offseason. Like Cole last year, Paxton is a talented pitcher with a slightly underwhelming track record and two years of team control renaming. Cole reached his great potential with the Astros, and Paxton could very well do the same with a new team.
Plus, if the Cole deal taught us anything, it’s that talented pitchers that haven’t reached their upside needn’t be cost prohibitive via trade as they near free agency. Cole fetched the Pirates a couple of middling major leaguers in Colin Moran and Joe Musgrove, plus a volatile reliever in Michael Feliz. The Yankees would certainly need to give up value for Paxton, but their relative lack of top prospects shouldn’t keep them from acquiring a pitcher who’s within two years of hitting the market.
In all, Paxton just seems like a prime target for a Yankee team that needs all the elite talent it can get. As the trade market this past season demonstrated, top pitching doesn’t always just materialize out of thin air. It’s difficult to procure, and if Paxton is available, the Yankees should pursue him with intent. He profiles as better than his surface numbers suggest, and shouldn’t be ultra-expensive. If the Yankees want to maximize their championship window over the next two years, a high-upside play like Paxton makes all the sense in the world.