A month ago, we were mostly worried about just how long James Paxton would be on the shelf after back surgery in the offseason. Injury woes for the lefty are nothing new, and we were fairly confident that 20-25 starts of his regular 30% K-rate would suit the team just fine, especially with the addition of Gerrit Cole at the top of the rotation.
Now, the fog around what the 2020 season will actually look like has raised additional questions about Paxton’s post-2020 career, and Masahiro Tanaka’s too. We’re looking at a significant reduction in the season, perhaps a complete cancellation, and the two Yankee starters represent the biggest possible losses to the club in next year’s free agency.
We have no idea what kind of agreement the league and players will come to about contract structures, but the notion Paxton and Tanaka could be free agents at the end of this abbreviated season bakes in a level of risk we’ve rarely seen in a single season before.
Neither player is without their warts - like I said above, Paxton is fantastic on the field, but spends enough time off it that his long-term value is affected. Tanaka has been a perfectly average pitcher over the last three years, and while average does carry value, it’s unlikely teams will pay a premium for an average pitcher turning 32 this winter. There were already potential concerns around signing either of these guys to significant term - Zack Wheeler’s deal over the winter probably represented the high-water mark for Paxton, and Tanaka a little less.
Now, both pitchers will have less of an opportunity to prove themselves worthy of those kind of commitments. Each start they do get, then, becomes proportionally more important. Take Tanaka’s biggest cold streak in 2019, for example, the four starts between 6/29 and 7/20 - we’re not going to count his London start on July 25th because that’s such a wild outlier nobody should take it seriously.
In that stretch, Tanaka threw 19 innings while surrendering 17 runs, striking out 13 and walking five. That’s an 8.05 ERA, 6.16 K/9, and 2.65 BB/9, all far worse than his season and career marks overall. In a normal season, any given cold streak isn’t THAT concerning, since everyone but Cole and Jacob DeGrom go through them. In an abbreviated season, though, those four starts could represent as much as 25% of a player’s season, dramatically changing the data teams have to make decisions.
Similarly, every start lost to the injured list carries a higher relative cost too. If our baseline for starts is 20 or so, Paxton continuing to miss time after “Opening Day” makes him that much less valuable to the Yankees, and gives him that much worse a case in the offseason.
The solution to this isn’t all that clear either - MLB has ordered a roster freeze, so even if Paxton or Tanaka wanted to negotiate an extension now to alleviate some of that risk, it wouldn’t be allowed by the league. Handshake agreements and unofficial discussions are likely fine, but with so much uncertainty around how this season is going to play out, impending free agents may just have to swallow the extra risk and hope for the best.