Red Sox Betting Paxton Bounces Back Strong

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Just around 24 hours before the upcoming lockout and labor stoppage, James Paxton and the Boston Red Sox agreed to a one-year, $10 million contract with club options for 2023 and 2024. If both options are picked up, the deal would amount to $35 million over three years. Paxton is 33 years old, coming off of Tommy John surgery, and hasn’t pitched a full season since 2019. But like many of Chaim Bloom’s moves since he has taken charge of the Red Sox, Paxton has a long track record of MLB success and the structure of the deal allows the Sox multi-year control.

Track Record of Success

Paxton’s career can be looked at through three phases. In his first three years in the league, he only pitched a combined 165 innings, but he maintained a 3.16 ERA. From 2016-2019, Paxton entered an excellent 4-year stretch where he produced a 3.60 ERA over 568 innings pitched, totaling 15.1 fWAR and placing him 12th in the league in that span. The past two seasons for Paxton have been wrecked by injury, but his combined six appearances between the two of them have not been pretty: a 6.65 ERA over 21.2 innings. In that span, his SIERA (skill interactive earned run average), which has a stronger relationship to future ERA than ERA itself, is only 3.86, but the Red Sox are absolutely hoping for Paxton to return to his 2016-2019 form.

The 6-foot 3 lefty throws primarily a three-pitch mix of a fastball, cutter, and curveball. In 2020, as his fastball velocity reached historical lows, he returned to throwing his changeup that he had abandoned from 2017-2019. But Paxton’s best pitch is his fastball, which he throws around 60% of the time. In his prime years, Paxton threw his fastball at around 96 MPH, but his velocity has fallen off in limited action the past two years. At 33 years old and coming off Tommy John, it’s unlikely that he will be able to touch triple digits again. However, if he can regain his velocity, he has the potential to be a top-15 pitcher in the game.

Beyond 2022

As much as this deal is about strengthening the Red Sox rotation for 2022, it is more about the two-year option for 2023 and 2024. Paxton had his Tommy John procedure in April, and will probably not return until June at the very earliest. $10 million for essentially half a season is a large upfront commitment, but the first year on this deal is a trial run for the next two years. If Paxton shows signs of returning to his pre-injury form in 2022, the Sox get a top starter under control for two years at $12.5 million AAV. If not, it is only a one-year deal, and there are no lasting financial implications.

Don’t Panic Just Yet

It’s reasonable to look at the Red Sox rotation of Nathan Eovaldi, Chris Sale, Tanner Houck, and Nick Pivetta entering the offseason and be disappointed with the two additions of Michael Wacha and Paxton. They are both low-risk, high-upside 1-year deals that don’t entirely replace the loss of Eduardo Rodriguez. But, fans should wait to release their frustrations. After all, the 2021 Red Sox opened the season with a starting rotation of Eovaldi-Houck-Richards-Pivetta-Perez and ended up in the ALCS. The offseason is not close to over yet, and they have already made clear upgrades over their 2021 rotation. If it is March 30th and the Red Sox have still not made any more starting pitcher acquisitions, then it is reasonable to express frustration with the offseason. But until then, give Chaim Bloom the benefit of the doubt. He has earned it.

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