Nearly three years ago at the 2018 trade deadline, I called James Paxton “blah” and in the same category as Chris Archer and Michael Fulmer. They were all pitchers I didn’t think were worth the Yankees trading for since they wouldn’t really make the team that much better and certainly weren’t worth giving up high-end prospects for. It was hard to find anyone who shared my perspective.
The allure of Paxton’s raw stuff and ceiling to be among the game’s best when he was on is what made him attractive to the Yankees and most Yankees fans, the way A.J. Burnett likely had. The problem is Paxton was the left-handed version of Burnett: unhittable when consistent, but rarely consistent. I referred to him as “blah” because of that inconsistency combined with his lengthy injury-riddled past. I agreed when Paxton was on, he was one as dominant as anyone in the league, but he was rarely on in consecutive starts or for any reasonable stretch of time.
Paxton was “blah” as a Yankee. He came to the team having never pitched more than 160 1/3 innings in a season (2018), and he fell under that mark in 2019 with 150 2/3 innings after spending a month on the injured list early in the season with a knee injury. After putting together an impressive second-half run to emerge as the Yankees’ top healthy starter, he hurt his back in his final regular-season game of 2019, and then was shaky in the ALDS (three earned runs in 4 2/3 innings) and couldn’t give any length in the ALCS (8 1/3 innings over two starts). The back injury lingered until February 2020 when he underwent surgery to resolve it. Once he returned when the season started in late July, his velocity had disappeared, and he turned in one quality start in five attempts before being shut down with a 6.64 ERA, effectively ending his Yankees tenure.
Paxton’s time with the Yankees was a letdown, and all my fears of trading for him came to fruition. To his credit, with the Yankees, he was exactly who he had been his entire career. There were no surprises. He ended up on the injured list in both seasons with the Yankees, the same way he had in every season with the Mariners, he was at times great, mostly OK, and mainly inconsistent. There were flashes of brilliance like in early 2019 against the Red Sox and Royals and in the second half of that season, but there were too many uninspiring, disappointing performances from a guy the Yankees sacrificed their top pitching prospect for, and a guy who was supposed to slot behind Luis Severino in the Yankees’ rotation.
That top pitching prospect the Yankees traded away to acquire Paxton was Justus Sheffield. The same 22-year-old Sheffield current and former Yankees raved about during spring training in 2018. Sheffield never started a game for the Yankees, making only three relief appearances in 2018, and then had mixed results in seven starts and eight games for the 2019 Mariners. But in 2020 and now 24, Sheffield broke out with a 3.58 ERA and 3.17 FIP across 10 starts for the Mariners. He had become the kind of starter the 2020 Yankees could have used in the ALDS to survive the Rays, instead they had Paxton, who had been shut down long before October with his latest injury on Aug. 20.
The Yankees made the move for Paxton recognizing their “window” at the time of the deal, choosing the veteran Paxton over the unknown Sheffield to help put them over the top. It didn’t work out like nearly every Brian Cashman trade for starting pitching hasn’t worked out and Paxton became the latest name in a long list of starter’s names who didn’t work out in New York.
In 2021, Sheffield will be in the same Mariners’ rotation as Paxton after the team brought Paxton back on a one-year deal this past week. The same way the Yankees traded Justin Wilson after 2015 in exchange for Chad Green and Luis Cessa, and now have all three, the Yankees were clearly on the losing end of the Paxton-Sheffield trade. It’s now easy to say the Mariners won the deal. It was a blowout win for the Mariners, a team that hasn’t done much winning in any regard since 2001. The Mariners received a package headline by Sheffield, didn’t have to pay Paxton the $21.075 million the Yankees did for 34 inconsistent regular-season starts, three postseason starts of varying success and two injury-plagued seasons.
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