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2013 MLB Prospect Review: James Paxton, LHP, Seattle Mariners

James Paxton was dominant against the Royals on Tuesday night, striking out 10 over 7 shutout innings. What can he be for fantasy owners for 2014, and is he likely to start the season in the Majors?

Otto Greule Jr

It's been a bit of an unusual path to the Majors for Mariners' lefty James Paxton, and yet here he stands. He is coming off his best start of his four in the Majors, a 10 strikeout performance where he allowed just 4 hits, walked none, and shut out the Royals for 7 innings. What can he be for fantasy owners in 2014, and is he worth holding onto in more shallow keeper formats?

The Basics
B/T Age as of 9/27/13 Height / Weight On 40-Man Roster?
L/L 11/6/1988 (24) 6'4" / 220 Yes

His History

After a good three seasons at the University of Kentucky, James Paxton was drafted in the supplemental first round by the Blue jays in 2009. That, however, is when things got more interesting for Paxton. He failed to reach an agreement with the Blue Jays on a contract before the signing deadline, and would be returning to school again for the 2010 season. However, an article came out quoting Blue Jays' executive Paul Beeston that the Blue Jays had negotiated with Scott Boras exclusively, in violation of the NCAA's regulations with regard to the use of agents and representatives for players with eligibility remaining. The NCAA threw the book at him, suspending him for the full 2010 season.

Paxton attempted to be reinstated, but was unable to secure that and instead signed with the Grand Prairie Air Hogs in the American Association. He made 4 starts with the team prior to the 2010 draft, and was selected in the 4th round by the Seattle Mariners. Because he no longer had any eligiblity left with the University, the signing deadline had no effect and Paxton did not sign until March of 2011.

The team sent Paxton to their Low-A affiliate to start the 2011 season, where he made 10 starts, striking out 80 and walking 30 in just 56 innings pitched. He was promoted to AA for the rest of the season, where he made seven starts, striking out 51 and walking 13 in 39 innings pitched. He returned to AA for the 2012 season, striking out 110 but struggling with his command (54 walks) in 106 innings pitched. In 2013, Paxton was sent to AAA Tacoma to start his year, and made 28 appearances (26 starts), threw 145 innings, struck out 131 and walked 58.

The Scouting Report

Scouting reports are gathered from other internet sources and written reports, unless otherwise noted.

Paxton features a four pitch repertoire, which includes a fastball, changeup, curveball, and cutter. The fastball is his best pitch, although reports on it point to some inconsistencies with regard to velocity. The pitch has been seen as high as 96 or 97 in some reports, but has also been in the high 80's in others throughout the season. His curveball is anticipated to be at least an average offering, and he used it to get most of his swinging strikes in last night's start. He just started throwing the cutter recently, and as such it is developmentally behind the other pitches. Regardless, Paxton has had success in the past, specifically with regard to inducing groundballs, as he posted GB rates over 40% each year in the minors.

His delivery seems at best to require slightly higher effort, as he appears to start his motion by slightly dropping his back shoulder, raising his front shoulder, and then following through the ball. In his Mariners' top 10 prospect list last year, Jason Parks referred to it as a " pronounced arm swing", which makes sense to me. It stands out to me as a potential risk factor, as it seems like it could cause problems with both repeatability and the ability to get good on top of the ball.

In general, the reports on Paxton seem to point to concerns that he may not be able to make it as a starting pitcher in the long-term, but rather end up relegated to the bullpen. The fact that his changeup is not likely to be an average pitch does not help, as he will likely need that pitch to have continued success as a starting pitcher.

What Does His Future Hold?

Paxton will likely get one more start this year, as his turn is set for Sunday's finale. Going into 2014, Paxton seems likely to get a shot to win a rotation spot for the Mariners, although as of now there are likely two spots to be open in the rotation with Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and Erasmo Ramirez all under contract for 2014. The team could decide to pick up Joe Saunders' mutual option, but it seems unlikely that Saunders will be in a Mariners' uniform for next year.

I can see that if Paxton wins a job out of Spring Training, he posts an ERA in the 3.95-4.15 range, around 150 strikeouts, and a 1.25-1.30 WHIP in 190 innings pitched. I think he has the potential to be an interesting keeper, but if there are no value/contract limitations he would probably be interesting to me in a mixed league where over 200 players are kept, or an AL-only league where over 100 are kept.