Just over one year ago, the Yankees acquired James Paxton from the Seattle Mariners. The move was something of an opening salvo for the team’s offseason. While it didn’t precede any earth-shattering signings like we may have expected, Paxton’s acquisition was the first of many throughout the winter that reshaped the Yankees’ roster heading into 2019.
At the time, Paxton seemed like a perfect trade target for the Bombers. Just four days before the trade went down, I highlighted Paxton as the team’s primary objective on the trade market. Once the move was consummated, we described it as a great pickup, and fans appeared to approve of the trade universally.
Of course, it’s become cliche to point out that teams don’t win or lose trades on the day they’re made. The way we view a deal shifts constantly, sometimes veering wildly in one direction or the other. Part of the fun of reviewing swaps is checking in on them at times down the road to see how each side has fared.
While Paxton yet again did not reach his potential in 2019, the Yankees still seem to have the clear upper hand on the Mariners in terms of this deal. One year out, the Yankees don’t look to have given up any players they will miss, in what feels like another case of a team knowing which prospects to trade.
To secure Paxton’s services for 2019 and 2020, the Yankees surrendered a pair of interesting pitching prospects: left-hander Justus Sheffield, and right-hander Erik Swanson. Sheffield was the jewel, and one of New York’s best prospects at the time of the trade. It was also the second time Sheffield was traded, as the young lefty had originally landed in the Bronx from Cleveland thanks to the Andrew Miller trade.
Entering 2019, Sheffield retained pretty much all of his prospect sheen. Consensus among public-facing scouts put him among the top-50 prospects in the world, with Baseball America ranking him highest at 27th. Sheffield boasted a long track record of success in the minors and quality stuff. He managed a sparkling 2.56 ERA in 116 innings across the Yankees’ high minors affiliates in 2018, and showed off his mid-90’s fastball and plus slider in the process.
Yet questions lingered regarding Sheffield’s durability and ultimate role in the majors, thanks in part to his relatively small and stocky frame. At 6-foot-0 and 200 pounds, some scouts reasoned Sheffield didn’t have the build of a long-term starter, and that reliever outcomes mostly made up his future. Sheffield also never found a third plus pitch, leaving him short of an arsenal that could turn over elite lineups multiple times. These questions likely shaped the Yankees’ willingness to deal Sheffield weeks after he had made his major-league debut in pinstripes.
Those concerns mostly came home to roost in 2019. Sheffield’s command regressed, as he walked over four batters per nine in 133 innings across multiple levels. One of those levels was Double-A, as Sheffield struggled so mightily with his original Triple-A assignment (a 6.87 ERA in 55 innings) that he was demoted in May. He eventually found his way to the bigs, where he struck out 37 batters in 36 innings, but also issued 18 walks and yielded 22 runs.
Sheffield now ranks ninth on the Mariners’ top-30 prospect list per MLB Pipeline, after entering the year in first. Baseball Prospectus also dropped him from first to ninth on their Mariners list. The frontline starter potential that Sheffield once displayed has seemingly evaporated, leaving a host of back-end starter and solid reliever projections instead.
Meanwhile, Swanson also fell off after leaving the Yankees’ organization. After seeing his stock explode after a tremendous 2018, when he struck out 139 batters in 121.2 minor-league innings with a 2.66 ERA, Swanson scuffled upon reaching the majors. The Mariners gave Swanson a fair bit of run, working him both as a starter and a reliever for 58 innings at the highest level. Swanson was battered for 41 runs, though his 52-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio was at least respectable.
The Mariners’ reasoning for the Paxton trade rested on the possibility that one of Sheffield or Swanson, or both, could some day perform at a level close to Paxton’s peak, but on a more optimal timeline for the team’s supposed window of contention. One year later, neither profiles as likely to even be an above average major leaguer any time soon, though the jury certainly is still out on both prospects.
I don’t need to recount in full Paxton’s up-and-down, ultimately valuable debut season with the Yankees. Paxton flashed elite upside while dealing with a few slumps and injuries, which sounds about par for the course for his career. Even so, as the Yankees continue to compete for a championship, that type of quality production, with the potential for more, easily outstrips whatever loss the team incurred in dealing a pair of prospects.
Indeed, the main lesson the Yankees could take from the Paxton trade thus far is one we discussed earlier this week through the lens of Greg Bird’s release; not all prospects pan out. Aggressively moving any prospect that doesn’t fall among the game’s truly elite for actual big-league talent is often a slam dunk for a contending team. Sheffield's and Swanson’s regression should remind the Yankees of that fact.
All told, I think Brian Cashman and the Yankees would bring in Paxton 100 times out of 100 given how the deal has unfolded over the past year. Paxton still brings a likely floor of a quality starter, and the ceiling of an ace. It’s not easy to find that kind of high-end talent, and the Yankees found some in exchange for prospects they won’t miss.