James Paxton took a rough road to professional baseball. Drafted 37th overall by the Toronto Blue Jays in 2009, Paxton was one of the few college juniors that did not sign, and he went back to the University of Kentucky (my alma mater, BTW). Well, he tried to go back. The NCAA launched an investigation into Paxton’s dealings with the Blue Jays, and they came to the conclusion that Paxton had used council (basically an agent) in his negotiations, which is a no-no for college athletes. Why the NCAA refuses to allow this is beyond me (or Keith Law - 2 parts), but even though Paxton and UK fought the decision, Paxton was unable to return to college. Paxton would re-enter the draft in 2010, and his stock predictably had dropped due to him being essentially out of competition for a year and being a year older. The Seattle Mariners took him in the 4th round and hoped his stuff would rebound. It has.
Paxton began the season in High-A Clinton, where he pitched very well (13 K/9, 5 BB/9, 2.73 ERA). His command issues were a bit of a concern, but the Mariners promoted him to AA Jackson. In 7 starts, he’s maintained the ability to strike out hitters (12 K/9), but he’s significantly reduced his walk rate (3 BB/9). The initial wildness may have just been a sign of rust, and it seems like the Seattle scouting staff knew it was okay to move him up.
They could move him up because he has great stuff. The lefty has a fastball that sits 91-94 with some sink, which is excellent for a lefty, and he adds a plus breaking ball (heard it referenced to as a slider and curveball, though it looks more curveballish to me) that should be a strikeout pitch at the major-league level. The change-up is maybe average, but it should be good enough to allow Paxton to start at the major-league level. Paxton is a big boy at 6’4” and 220, and he should be able to handle a large workload and maintain his velocity for a while. Though he has excellent stuff, Paxton doesn’t have great command. His wind-up (seen here) is very deliberate, but as he makes his turn, he drops his back shoulder. This gives him excellent extension, but when he tries to come back around, his right arm obscures his vision, he doesn’t quite get his front shoulder back “down”, and he throws across his body. The extension gives him velocity and sink, but the other stuff makes it harder for him to get the ball down and where he wants it. Luckily, he will pitch in Safeco with an excellent outfield to get those fly balls, and he seems to be able to keep the ball near the plate.
Seattle will likely be careful with Paxton. He’s up to 100 innings on the year, and I expect he’ll go to the AFL to get a few more. But his arm probably isn’t quite ready for an MLB workload at the age of 22 (turns 23 in November). I expect him to either return to AA or be in AAA at the start of next season,. There’s no real reason to push him, considering that the Mariners aren’t very good right now, but they weren’t shy with Michael Pineda so he is a candidate to start 2012 in the rotation. Adding him to Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda, along with 2011 draftee Dan Hultzen, should give the Mariners an envious rotation in the near future.