Karpin: Will Paxton Make Yanks’ Gray Skies Clear Up?

In July 2017, the Yankees felt they had made a great deal to shore up their starting rotation. The Yankees sent three prospects to Oakland for a pitcher that they could control for 2½ seasons. 16 months later, the Yankees have put that pitcher on the trade block (and a deal will be consummated very soon) and they’ve gone back to the AL West to “shore up their starting rotation.” Sound familiar. The Yankees better hope they got this one right.

16 months ago the Yankees felt they “upgraded their starting rotation” with the acquisition of Sonny Gray. As we came to learn, Gray could not function in New York and now the Yankees are trying to trade him, when they themselves are in need of starting pitching. Gray thrived while pitching on the West Coast and in the spacious (where foul pops don’t usually reach the stands) Oakland Coliseum.

With the acquisition of 30-year old left hander James Paxton from the Seattle Mariners, the Yankees felt they “upgraded their starting rotation.” In the trade for Gray, the Yankees sent pitcher James Kaprielian, and outfielders Jorge Mateo and Dustin Fowler to the A’s. So far, none of those three has really emerged to make the Gray deal look worse. At that time, the Yankees felt they “upgraded their starting rotation.”

The Yankees feel like they’ve enhanced their starting rotation with Paxton and the ol’ adage “you have to give to get,” does apply, but did they give up too soon on Justus Sheffield? The Yanks’ top prospect is the 22-year old lefthander who headlines the deal from the Mariners side. Also going to Seattle, minor league right hander Erik Swanson and 23-year old center fielder Dom Thompson-Williams, a promising outfielder but the Yankees still have the highly touted Estevan Florial.

When they acquired Sheffield from the Indians in the Andrew Miller trade in 2016, the Yankees initially viewed him as a starting pitcher . The hard throwing southpaw features three pitches (a fastball that occasionally reaches the upper 90’s, a slider and change-up) but his problem has been his command which has led the Yankees to re-assess their thinking about him. Just because Sheffield has command issues now, doesn’t mean he couldn’t improve. The Yankees feel they have a window to win now and didn’t want to wait to see if Sheffield would live up to his potential.

Sheffield was promoted to the big club in September and pitched a total of 2.2 innings in three appearances. His final outing was against the Red Sox on the final day of the regular season and he got hit around a bit as he faced 7 batters, allowed four of those to reach and gave up a three run homer to J.D. Martinez. Nothing to be shamed of there but it wasn’t a good optic. It was a short sample and, admittedly, not that impressive, but it was Sheffield’s first go round in the bigs.

Paxton struck out a career high 208 batters in 160.1 IP last season so he has what the Yankees view as “swing and miss” stuff. The southpaw gave up a career high 23 home runs in 2018 but only three of those were to left handed hitters. There was nearly a 50-50 split on the long balls in home and road games against Paxton. 12 homers were hit off him at “pitcher-friendly” Safeco Field while 11 were in road games.

For one reason or another, Gray showed that he couldn’t pitch in New York and we’re not just talking about games at Yankee Stadium. I don’t care what his home/road splits were. Rather, it was the mental part of Gray’s game that was bewildering. He would get out in front of hitters, but would never be able to put them away and then Gray would let innings snowball on him and he’d find himself with one of those short and unproductive outings.

Last June, in the only appearance of his career at Yankee Stadium, Paxton gave up four runs in the first inning. Aaron Judge and Miguel Andujar each hit two run homers and there was nearly a third long ball, but Mitch Haniger robbed Giancarlo Stanton with a leaping catch at the wall. To his credit, Paxton shook off the bad inning and pitched scoreless ball for the next four innings before leaving the game.

Any trade of this kind is a risk. Can Paxton be the “anti-Sonny Gray” and provide the Yankees with a pitcher who came from a West Coast team to thrive in New York, and what kind of pitcher will Justus Sheffield turn out to be.

The Yankees are rolling the dice, give them credit for that, but their assessment of pitchers that they have traded for in recent years has not always been on target. They need to get this one right.

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