James Paxton - SP - Mariners - If you don't know Paxton's story, it's an interesting one. He was drafted 37th overall in 2009 by the Toronto Blue Jays, and went unsigned. While he planned to go back to Kentucky to improve his draft stock, Paxton was ruled ineligible because Blue Jays President, Paul Beeston stated that he negotiated directly with Paxton's adviser, thus violating inane NCAA rules. Paxton would go on to sue the NCAA, but would not get reinstated before deciding to pitch for an independent league. He showed diminished stuff in his stint in the independent league and dropped to the 4th round before Seattle popped him, and signed him for a well over slot $942,000.
Read more on Paxton after the jump...
Paxton began his non-independent (dependent?) professional career at Lo-A Clinton, which was low for his age (23) but made some sense given his extended layoff. He made 10 dominant starts there striking out 80 batters against 30 walks in a mere 56 innings. Clearly he overmatched the opposing hitters, though the walk rate was a bit concerning. This did not deter Seattle from giving him a midseason promotion straight to Double-A, which was a bit more age appropriate for him. Despite skipping Hi-A and his previous control issues in Lo-A, Paxton was even more refined and more dominant in his new digs. In 39 innings spanning seven starts, Paxton struck out 51 and walked 13, ending the year with a 1.85 ERA in Double-A.
Paxton does his damage with a low to mid 90s fastball, and he can touch 98 MPH when he reaches back for more. He uses both a two- and four-seam fastball, and is comfortable with either one. He compliments his fastballs with an upper 70s hammer (curve) that he uses as his strikeout pitch, though he also shows the ability to throw it for strikes early in the count. Knowing how hard it is to survive as a start with two pitches, Paxton made progress with his change-up, switching to a circle change for the 2011 season. The two fastballs are both plus offerings with the four-seamer arriving at the upper end of his register and the two-seamer sitting mostly 91-94 MPH, with some tailing movement on it. The curveball has both shape and depth, and when he is on it will show sharp break. As good as the curve can be, Paxton isn't as consistent as he could be with it, and it loses it's break when he's not commanding it, making it quite hittable. This is a plus pitch if he can continue to refine his command of it, but remains above-average for now. The change lags behind his other offerings, though he did improve it as the season wore on. The switch to the circle grip has given the off-speed offering some fade, though it won't do him much good until he can maintain the same armspeed, so hitters don't know what's coming. It should be an average third (fourth if you count both fastballs) in the future.
Lefties with Paxton's ability to strike out hitters and keep the ball on the ground aren't common, and his ultimate ceiling is a strong 2. His ability to refine his curve, and make his change-up will go a long way towards determining whether he can reach his ceiling as his fastball(s) is/are ready right now. Some complain about his long arm action, and it can affect his control from time to time, but he also gets good plane on both his fastball and breaking ball, and the Mariners aren't messing with what works right now. That is a bridge they will likely cross when they need to. The only other factor affecting Paxton's path to the big leagues is his relative lack of innings (95 last year). There is a good chance that Paxton could be more effect than three of Seattle's current starters (Noesi, Beavan, Millwood) and possibly four (Vargas), though the time in the minors will do him well. Danny Hultzen may beat him to the majors, but I'd prefer to own Paxton for fantasy purposes (though I'd rather own Taijuan Walker than either of them). If he can continue to build up his arm strength and show steady progress, there is a good chance he reaches the majors at some point early in 2013, and he'll be well worth owning when he does.