March 7, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Seattle Mariners relief pitcher James Paxton (65) throws in the fifth inning during a spring training game against the Oakland Athletics at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports
For a team that already has a load of big arms on the mound, the Seattle Mariners have more still coming up from the minors to supplement their already well-armed pitching staff. James Paxton is only one of several whose promise will soon take center stage at Safeco.
A native of Richmond, British Columbia, Paxton headed south to the University of Kentucky before the Mariners snatched him in the fourth round of the 2010 Draft. But there’s a story within a story when it comes to this prospect. Here’s the mercifully-short version: Paxton had been drafted in the first round by the Toronto Blue Jays (37th overall) in 2009 but did not sign. He contacted (or was contacted by, depending on who you ask) superagent Scott Boras, who may or may not have had direct communication with the Blue Jay’s front office. Toronto General Manager Paul Beeston made comments which alluded to communications with Boras on behalf of Paxton. Those comments made it into print. This made him ineligible to return to the Wildcats according to NCAA rules and, as such, it essentially spelled the end of Paxton’s amateur career. Sports Agent Blog has a very good post on the incident but none of that matters now.
Paxton began his pro career in 2010 in the independent American Association, pitching for the Grand Prairie AirHogs and logging 17 2/3 innings. After the Mariners drafted him that year, Paxton began his affiliated professional career with the Single-A Clinton LumberKings in the Midwest League. He made the jump to the Double-A Jackson Generals in the Southern League later that year, posting a 1.85 ERA in 7 starts and sending down an astounding 51 batters on strikes. Combine that with the 80 he struck out in Clinton (56 innings) and Paxton recorded 131 strikeouts in 95 innings for the year. He has continued that pattern since then, averaging just over a strikeout per inning over a total of 364 2/3 innings.
Paxton brings a fastball from the mid-to-high 90’s, peaking at 98 and sitting comfortably at 93-94. He throws a hammer curve in the low-80’s with a hard break and tight spin at its best, in addition to a cutter and change-up. The stuff has always been there; its his mechanics which have been inconsistent. Like most taller pitchers, Paxton has historically had difficulty repeating his delivery. At 6’4”, Paxton has longer ‘levers’ to control. Most exceptionally-tall pitchers go through this at some point in their careers. However, Paxton seemed to have learned to make his delivery more compact in 2013, and now has a tighter spin and break on his curve and more consistent command of his pitches, in general.
Indeed, being able to maintain his new mechanics will be his only real challenge. In the Pacific Coast League with the Tacoma Raniers last year, Paxton’s velocity fluctuated wildly and dropped as low as 87 MPH because of inconsistencies in his delivery. Knowing that, it becomes exceptionally important for Paxton to be mindful of staying compact and consistent. Sub-90 MPH fastballs don’t last too long in the Majors.
If he can repeat his delivery and maintain it, Paxton would likely join Taijuan Walker and Erasmo Ramirez to round out Seattle’s rotation. If the team feels he needs more work he could still end up in the bullpen, though the Mariners already have a power lefty in the ‘pen in the person of Charlie Furbush. However it works out once Spring Training ends, Paxton’s peak potential would place him squarely in the middle of Seattle’s starting staff. That’s a peak which Paxton can easily reach.