Since being traded to the Yankees on November 19, 2018, James Paxton has been exactly as advertised: a top-of-the-rotation lefty with an inability to stay healthy. While 2020 has not gotten fully underway yet, his injury woes don’t seem to be changing anytime soon.
2019 Stats: 15-6, 150.2 IP, 3.82 ERA, 3.86 FIP, 116 ERA+, 186 K, 55 BB, 2.1 bWAR, 3.5 fWAR
2020 FanGraphs Depth Chart Projections: 10-6, 129 IP, 3.83 ERA, 3.83 FIP, 151 K, 40 BB
The beginning of James Paxton’s season will be delayed, as the lefty underwent underwent a microscopic lumbar discectomy at the beginning of February to remove a peridiscal cyst that was causing a herniated disc. An injury that first surfaced back at the end of the 2019 season and that Paxton pitched through in the playoffs, it is expected to prevent him from making his season debut until May at the earliest.
When he returns, thanks to the injury to Luis Severino, the Yankees will need him to pick up where he left off at the end of 2019. After struggling through June and July, Paxton was electric down the stretch, with a 3.57 ERA in August and a microscopic 1.05 in September. His hot streak was powered by a change in approach, as he opted to throw his curveball more. After throwing it only 13% of the time in June and July, when he posted 7.15 and 5.68 ERAs respectively, he employed it 24% of the time in August and 31% of the time in September. This should encourage the Yankees beyond the simple performance improvement, as it shows that he’ll be able to make any necessary mid-season adjustments.
A successful performance following his return would be the best case scenario for everybody involved. Not only do the Yankees have a massive hole at the top of their rotation now, but Paxton is himself in his final year of arbitration and is set to hit free agency. Even with his injury history, he could be setting himself up for a big payday if he performs as well as he did down the stretch.
The most recent update we have on Paxton’s rehab came this past Thursday, when he revealed to reporters that he’s to begin throwing the ball either this weekend or early next week. Paxton, in fact, has been very optimistic on his recovery, pegging a return in May, while Cashman has established June as his target date. Considering how the last 14 months have been for the Yankees on the injury front, I’d hesitate to be optimistic as well if I were in Cashman’s shoes.
Ultimately, 2020 does not expect to be anything different for Paxton than the rest of his career. He’s a capable upper-mid-rotation starter who has ace-like flashes but struggles to stay healthy over the course of a 162-game season. Although the Yankees have a plethora of young prospects to fill into his rotation spot, they would nonetheless be a lot more comfortable once Paxton reclaims it.