Boston Red Sox

Sep 24, 2018; Seattle, WA: Seattle Mariners starting pitcher James Paxton throws against the Oakland Athletics during the third inning at Safeco Field. (Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)

Seattle Mariners pitcher James Paxton throws against the Oakland Athletics at Safeco Field. (Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)

By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

The New York Yankees clearly needed to upgrade their starting pitching this offseason. Not just to keep up with the Red Sox, but with pretty much all of their competition in the American League. So they went out and cashed in some valuable chips to land ex-Mariners lefty James Paxton, giving themselves a formidable No. 2 starter behind Luis Severino with ace upside.

If Paxton counts as the Yankees’ big splash on the pitching staff, it’s certainly an improvement for them on paper – but also a small victory for the Red Sox. It doesn’t help that their division rival added a frontline starter, but does Paxton really count as a power-shifting kind of move?

Unless he pitches even better – and longer – than he ever has in his career, the answer is no.

The Yankees definitely paid a frontline price, though. They sent a package to the Seattle Mariners centered around lefty Justus Sheffield, who finished 2018 as the Yankees’ top prospect and No. 31 prospect in all of baseball. He immediately becomes the Mariners’ top prospect overall, going by the rankings from MLB Pipeline. The deal also included right-hander Erik Swanson and outfielder Dom Thompson-Williams, but Sheffield was the big prize.

Paxton is already 30 years old, but has emerged as one of the better lefties in the American League in the past two seasons – when he’s on the mound. In 296.1 innings from 2017-18, Paxton has compiled a 23-11 record with a 3.40 ERA and 364 strikeouts, against just 79 walks. He had stretches of ace-like dominance in 2018, including a 1.67 ERA in six May starts and a no-hitter against the Toronto Blue Jays on May 8.

He happened to have his worst start of 2018 against the Red Sox, getting lit up for six runs in just 2.1 innings on June 15 at SafeCo Field. Inconsistency and the occasional clunker have tended to be an issue for him, but when Paxton is on his game, he can be as efficient and overpowering as anyone with his mix of a mid-90s fastball, a plus cutter and curveball, and the occasional changeup.

Paxton’s biggest problem has been staying healthy. While he’s avoided major injuries over the past two seasons, he’s averaged just 148 innings per year due to missing time with various ailments. In 2018 alone, he hit the DL for lower back inflammation and again for a bruised forearm – albeit after getting hit by a line drive. He also spent time on the DL in 2017 for a pectoral strain and forearm strain, and has dealt with shoulder, lat, and finger injuries as well.

Aug 14, 2018; Oakland, CA: Seattle Mariners starting pitcher James Paxton leaves the field after being hit by a ball during the first inning against the Oakland Athletics at Oakland Coliseum. (Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports)

Aug 14, 2018; Oakland, CA: Seattle Mariners starting pitcher James Paxton leaves the field after being hit by a ball during the first inning against the Oakland Athletics at Oakland Coliseum. (Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports)

The lefty looked on the bright side when asked about his injury history in an introductory conference call with the New York media on Monday. Hey, at least he hasn’t had Tommy John surgery.

“I continue to try to work toward being healthy for an entire season,” said Paxton, via NJ.com. “I feel like I’ve been lucky I haven’t had any really bad injuries as far as elbow, shoulder, that kind of stuff.

“I’ve learned how to make sure those things don’t happen again through exercise or whatever and I’m doing everything I can to prepare myself and be ready for an entire season.”

As of Tuesday, here’s how the Yankees’ 2019 starting rotation looks:

RHP Luis Severino
LHP James Paxton
RHP Masahiro Tanaka
LHP C.C. Sabathia
RHP Sonny Gray

Rumors indicate that the Yankees aren’t done bolstering their pitching staff. Jon Morosi believes they’re in on free agents Patrick Corbin and J.A. Happ, but those two are even less of a splash than Paxton. Corbin is coming off a very good season for the Diamondbacks (3.15 ERA, 246 strikeouts in 200 innings), but he’s hardly done anything to prove he can be relied upon as anything more than a mid-rotation starter. Happ pretty much is what he is at this point, a solid pitcher but not the kind of game-changer Brian Cashman wants in pinstripes next season.

For the Yankees’ rotation, Paxton looks like the the big fish. When he’s on the mound he has potential to be one of the best pitchers in the league, but he also has yet to pitch more than 160.1 innings in a season. New York is hoping that he can do that and keep it together for full seasons, and only then will he realize his big potential. He’ll have to achieve that as a 31-year-old or older.

Paxton certainly makes the Yankees better. But for a Red Sox team sitting on the sidelines as their biggest rival fortifies their roster, the idea that Paxton is the Yanks’ big pitching acquisition should be considered something of a sigh of relief.

Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at matthew.dolloff@bbgi.com.