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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: James Paxton

Does a reunion with Big Maple make sense?

Boston Red Sox v Kansas City Royals Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images

There’s less than three full days until the new year and the Yankees still have a gaping hole in their rotation. As Estevão detailed earlier this week, the uncertainty surrounding Carlos Rodón and Nestor Cortes following their injury-riddled and ineffective campaigns in 2023 and Clarke Schmidt after nearly tripling his previous season-high in innings leaves the starting staff in a tricky spot. After missing out on Yoshinobu Yamamoto as well as a handful of the other starters atop the free agent market, New York’s options are becoming increasingly thin should they look to reinforce externally.

One player who Estevão mentioned as an alternate solution to at the very least rebuild depth was old friend James Paxton.

2023 Statistics: 19 starts, 96 IP, 4.50 ERA (101 ERA+), 4.68 FIP, 3.98 xFIP, 24.6 percent K%, 8.0 percent BB%, 1.0 fWAR

2024 FanGraphs Depth Charts Projections: 26 starts, 142 IP, 4.02 ERA, 4.15 FIP, 24.4 percent K%, 8.2 percent BB%, 2.3 fWAR

Previous Contract: Signed two-year, $10 million contract with Red Sox prior to start of 2022 season.

When the Yankees traded a package headlined by top pitching prospect Justus Sheffield to the Mariners following the 2018 season, they hoped that they were receiving an MLB-proven ace in Paxton who could spearhead a rotation amid the emergence of the Baby Bomber era. He did just that in his first season in pinstripes, going 15-6 with a 3.82 ERA, 3.86 FIP, and 3.5 fWAR across 29 starts totaling 150.2 innings. He was also nails in the playoffs, pitching to a 3.46 ERA in three starts including a season-saving masterpiece against the Astros, giving up one run on four hits with nine strikeouts in six innings of ALCS Game 5.

Paxton established himself as one of the frontline starters in the league in the latter half of the 2010s, placing 10th in FIP (3.20), 11th in K-BB% (21.7), and 19th in fWAR (15.5) among qualified starting pitchers between 2016 and 2021. He did this armed with the 14th-hardest fastball (96 mph) among that cohort, the fastest of any lefty starter during that span.

Of course, the Big Maple is no longer that pitcher, with injuries limiting him to just one appearance of 1.1 innings between 2021 and 2022. Yankees fans will remember the back surgery that delayed the start of his 2020 campaign, while Tommy John surgery robbed him of the entire 2022 campaign. Injuries prevented the southpaw from fully realizing his potential throughout his career, having never made 30 starts nor qualified for an ERA title (162 innings) in any of his 10 big league seasons. He’s thrown a grand total of 117.2 innings since the end of 2019, pitching to a 4.90 ERA and 4.60 FIP during that span.

So while Paxton may not be the type of pitcher you’d feel comfortable penciling into the rotation for a full season’s worth of starts, he flashed signs last season that there is still gas left in the tank. After starting the season on the injured list with a hamstring strain, Paxton got off to a scorching start with the Red Sox, pitching to a 2.73 ERA with 64 strikeouts in 56 innings across his first ten starts, en route to winning AL Pitcher of the Month honors in June.

The lefty even maintained this effectiveness into the second-half, with a 3.34 ERA across 16 starts totaling 86.1 innings. Unfortunately, Paxton began to lose steam after the Trade Deadline and looked absolutely gassed in his final three appearances, getting tagged for 17 runs (16 earned) in just 9.2 innings (14.90 ERA), walking more than he struck out to drag down his overall numbers on the year.

The velocity and movement on his pitches got progressively worse from the end of July through the conclusion of the regular season, and the results suffered in kind. Batters were not only making a lot more contact, they were doing damage at increasingly alarming rates, with metrics like exit velocity, hard-hit rate, barrel rate, and xwOBA skyrocketing by the end of August.

Barring an offseason training regimen that helps Paxton rebuild his stamina, he is not someone I would feel comfortable starting every fifth game for an entire campaign. However, that does not mean he cannot provide value to his next club. As we’ve detailed on the site over the last few weeks, the Yankees’ starting pitching depth was almost completely depleted by the trades for Juan Soto, Trent Grisham, and Alex Verdugo as well as departures in the Rule 5 Draft. Paxton is the type of low-cost, high-upside depth you’d love to stash should any of the five projected starters miss time to injury, allowing him to stay fresh and therefore pitch at maximum effectiveness should his name be called.