Paxton’s immediate future

 We’ve discussed James Paxton for years here at Prospect Insider. He was a first-round talent that fell to Round 4 in 2010, having sat out most of the spring after not signing with the Toronto Blue Jays the previous summer. He’s tall, throws hard and has had his moments in the majors. He’s also had problems staying healthy and throwing strikes consistently. Many have wanted to banish him to the bullpen for years. That never made sense, as he’s shown flashes of brilliance in a starting role, including Monday night at Safeco Field, but mostly because the left-hander’s struggles only would be magnified in shorter stints.

In what ofen are higher leverage, issuing walks at a high rate cannot be part of a quality major-league reliever’s resume. It just doesn’t work. So Paxton has remained a starting pitcher, which also is the best way for any pitcher to work through issues; mechanics, pitches, et al, regardless of his future major league role.

Paxton issued eight walks and allowed 25 hits in Peoria during spring training then walked nine batters in his first 6 1/3 innings pitched for Triple-A Tacoma. Since his work with pitching coach Lance Painter, covered here, the left-hander has walked seven batters over 42 innings split between Triple-A Tacoma and the big leagues. He’s struck out 59 in the same span.

Having cleaned up his front side mechanically, Paxton is pounding the strike zone. The fastball command — note the difference between basic control, which is simply throwing strikes, and command, which is locating pitches in specific spots — remains a bit spotty, but he’s up to 100 mph and his spike curveball has ticked up since early in the year, too. Paxton’s changeup remains below-average but occasionally useful, but in a very short time the 89-92 mph cutter has moved toward true slider status, showing a little more depth, which means the way he used Monday is plausible long term. He’s also shown he can command the pitch better.

The pitches are there; three of them look average to plus right now, with a fourth flashing fringe-average. The consistency hasn’t been there just yet, specifically with the changeup and the command, but we’re seeing more signs of all that, too. Paxton, for now, is the club’s choice to start games while Felix Hernandez is on the disabled list, which may last into late June or beyond, per most recent reports. Once Hernandez returns, the Mariners have a decision to make. If that decision includes the good version of Paxton the club saw Monday, Paxton will remain in the rotation. If it’s the old Paxton — spring training, through the first two starts — it’s an easy choice to ship him back to Tacoma. If it’s somewhere in between, which may be the most likely, the choices should be limited to the following:

1) Taijuan Walker or Nate Karns optioned to Tacoma or placed on DL — for rest purposes only

Before the season began, GM Jerry Dipoto made it clear the plan with both right-handers would be to limit to about 185 innings. As of June 6, Karns is projecting to just 176 2/3 innings, Walker is on pace for 171 1/3. Walker hasn’t looked right the past handful of starts, however, and 175 might be a better number for him anyway. Paxton, even the not-as-good-as-Monday edition, may be as good or better than Walker lately. Perhaps giving him a bit of a break now is in order. At some point both Walker and Karns may have to be skipped or pushed back to keep them away from a workload the organization wants to avoid. Paxton should be the key cog in this plan.

2) Send Paxton to Triple-A Tacoma, but not to start

If Paxton is pitching well, he’s one of the 12 best arms in the organization and the club needs him in the big leagues, even if it’s in a relief role. Using him in relief for 2-3 weeks in Tacoma helps him nail down a new routine; it’s what Edwin Diaz did before the club called up the 22-year-old. If that sort of process wasn’t value and necessary, Diaz would have been called up a month ago.

For years I ripped into the thought Paxton should be pushed toward the bullpen because it didn’t make sense. And it never has, until now, and that’s because Paxton is throwing a lot of strikes, and more quality strikes than at any other point in his career.

From a relief standpoint, Paxton offers even bigger strikeout potential and despite lacking the ideal angles a lot of lefty relievers create with their delivery, the adjusted arm slot and developing cutter-slider each give him weapons versus left-handed batters than he’s never had, and the velocity range and power curveball suggest Paxton could be a very good high-leverage arm out of the bullpen. Throwing harder more consistently — of which many arms reap the benefits in such a transition — can also take care of some of the hittability (not a real word) that shows up on Paxton’s B-REF splits page.

One way or the other, Paxton’s chances to help the 2016 Mariners is greater than ever, and no matter the role the club should do what it takes to field the best staff possible. There’s no way the newest version of Paxton — going back eight starts in the minors through his most recent one in the bigs — isn’t one of the best 12 pitchers in the organization. Such a move, however, wouldn’t mean Paxton permanently stays in the bullpen. But it may be the best way for him to help this year’s Mariners once the rotation is healthy again. His value to the 2016 Mariners starting in Tacoma all year? Zero.

Assuming Tony Zych returns from the disabled list at some point — which seems reasonable, unlike the futures of other injured relievers Evan Scribner, Ryan Cook and Charlie Furbush — a Mariners’ bullpen including Paxton may have more quality relievers than they can keep, and even have the power arms they were missing earlier in the year.

Potential Bullpen Options
Reliever FB Velo Range FB Max Velo Strikeout Pitch
Steve Cishek, RH 90-92 93 SL
Joaquin Benoit, RH 92-95 97 SPL
Edwin Diaz, RH 94-98 102  FB/SL
Mike Montgomery, LH 93-95 97  FB/CB/CH
Vidal Nuno, LH 88-90 91  SL/CH
Steve Johnson, RH 87-89 91  NA
Nick Vincent, RH 89-92  93 FB/CUT 
 James Paxton 94-100 101 FB/CB
Tony Zych, RH (DL) 94-96 99  FB/SL
Ryan Cook, RH (DL) 92-95  97 SL 
Charlie Furbush, LH (DL)  89-92 94 SL
 

Moving Paxton to the bullpen in early July or so doesn’t mean he can’t start games later in the in the year if necessary, either. Something the Mariners have done with Montgomery that keeps him closer to being ready to jump into the rotation if needed is use him in multi-inning stints a lot. In nine of Montgomery’s 16 appearances he’s gone two innings or more.

The move with Diaz and potentially the same move with Paxton could set up the club to stay in-house with the bullpen for the summer, rather than spending trade assets to acquire more help this summer. The Mariners may be able to use their limited trade assets to patch up other areas, which, unfortunately, may end up including the starting rotation. No, not at the bottom where Walker has struggled the past month or so, but more toward the top where Hernandez and Iwakuma haven’t performed like No. 1 or No. 2 starters and Wade Miley’s slow start has gotten worse rather than better. The rotation has been a strength overall, but it’s also where the biggest impact can be made by either acquiring high-level assistance. Somewhere in the outfield is another spot that may warrant some help. That doesn’t necessarily mean Nori Aoki is designated for assignment. It could come down Aoki and Adam Lind. Lind, who’s hit a little better of late, may be squeezed off the roster if the club gets the chance to add a more versatile option — you know, the kind of option for which carrying two 1B/DH types doesn’t allow — if he doesn’t start to hit consistently soon.

If the Mariners are in the race, Dipoto isn’t going to stand pat and after the rotation, corner outfield and Lind’s spot on the roster are the best chances to improve the club. It’s early June, so we’ll pick up this conversation in about five weeks when trade season gets hot. But the bullpen situation likely will play a key role in what the club is able to do; have to spend on a reliever, among the more pricey commodities in July? Less to spend on other areas. Bullpen fine because Diaz and maybe even Paxton are part of the group? Yeah, the latter is the better scenario.

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Jason A. Churchill

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