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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: James Paxton

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Should the Yanks bring back Big Maple, or is his injury history too much of a risk?

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The end of the year is fast approaching, and the Yankees are about to be in the year 2021 with a starting rotation that is scary thin and frighteningly unknown. Aside from Gerrit Cole, the rest of the starting staff is mainly comprised of youngsters who have not come close to proving themselves as reliable pieces, even for the back end of a starting rotation. If the Yankees expect to compete for a World Series, adding a starting pitcher or three will be critical.

There are the obvious big splash names like Trevor Bauer, but on a smaller scale, would bringing back James Paxton make sense? The lefty came over prior to the 2019 season in a trade for Justus Sheffield, and looked like he could be a strong addition to the rotation, particularly down the stretch of that season, posting a 2.51 ERA through his final 61 innings, while posting 69 strikeouts. He also turned in one of the most clutch pitching performances of that season, keeping the Yankees’ season alive in Game 5 of the ALCS.

The shortened 2020 season was far from kind to Paxton, and the injury concerns that flared up during his Seattle tenure were back at the forefront. After failing to make it through two innings in his season debut, Paxton continued to labor through his next four starts, making it through the sixth inning just once, and after allowing three runs through five innings on August 20th to drop his season ERA to 6.64, his season was done. Paxton was shelved with a flexor strain in his left forearm, and when he began throwing off of flat ground in an attempt to come back for the postseason, he experienced a setback. That was it for his 2020, and perhaps also his Yankees career.

The flexor strain almost felt like good news at the time, especially given Paxton’s diminished fastball velocity in 2020. The southpaw has always averaged around 95 mph on his heater throughout his career, but that number took a scary plunge this past season, making his injury news unsurprising, as there finally seemed to be an explanation for the drop in velocity.

Data courtesy of Statcast

So, not much of Paxton’s recent performance suggests that the Yankees should try to bring him back, but when you look at the current pitching options, it actually makes a lot of sense to take a chance. Brian Cashman’s recent comments on the free agent scene make the prospect of bringing back Masahiro Tanaka seem bleak at best, so if the Yankees can take a “risk” with Paxton, they could bring him back on a cheaper deal than it would require to bring back Tanaka.

Of course, the question of which Paxton the Yankees would be getting should certainly arise, but the reward could be worth the risk. At his best, Paxton’s fastball has the highest average velocity in the league (it was tops in all of baseball among starters from 2017-19), and having just turned 32, he should still have a few good years left if he can stay healthy. That is a massive “if,” though the Yankees’ rotation is full of those right now, so wouldn’t it make sense to bring back someone who has proven himself at the major league level, and at best, could be a fit at the top of the rotation?

Luis Severino won’t be back until late summer, and the Yankees have already said that they will be cautious with his return. Jordan Montgomery will be entering his first full season since Tommy John surgery. Deivi García will be trying his first full year at the major league level, and Domingo Germán hasn’t pitched in the majors in over a year — and has been getting knocked around in the Dominican Winter League. Paxton would be a risk, sure, but arguably not as much of a risk as some of these unknowns. Perhaps it’s worth a try.