The Pittsburgh Pirates are always looking for controllable players. Could the team have gotten the prize pitcher on the trade block?
Although the Pittsburgh Pirates do not have a glaring hole in their rotation, teams always look to bring in as much quality starting pitching as possible. This is especially true for players who are still on their MLB entry contract with multiple years of control. Even more so, the Pittsburgh Pirates could use a left-handed starter. Well, there was a pitcher on the trade block who would have checked all of those boxes for the Bucs.
James Paxton very well could have been a really good fit for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The big lefty was recently dealt to the New York Yankees, and before that he was known to be available. For the Bucs, Paxton would not only have represented another top of the rotation arm, but fill the void of a left-handed starter that the team has not really had since Francisco Liriano. The Bucs could have slotted him at number two, between Jameson Taillon and Chris Archer, in the rotation. It would have been hard to find a team in the NL Central with a better top three.
Paxton is one of the better lefties in baseball. Over the last two seasons, he has compiled a 3.40 earned run average in 296.1 innings. Also, he has struck out a ton of hitters, sitting down 364 batters, which gives him 1.23 strikeout per inning pitched. The biggest issue with Paxton is the fact that he has only thrown 296.1 innings over two years. Health has always been an issue for “Big Maple”, however last year he had his healthiest season yet.
However, there is one other key component to Paxton that should have attracted the Pittsburgh Pirates other than his ability, and that is his contract. Although Paxton is 30 years of age, he still is going through his arbitration years. The big left has two years of team control left due to having Super-2 Status. This year, he is entering his third year of arbitration and is projected to have a $9 million salary, only $500K more than what the Pittsburgh Pirates fifth starter in Ivan Nova is receiving. Even with the fourth year of arbitration, Paxton likely won’t get a huge bump in salary.
The Actual Trade
With all this being said, to get something you have to give something. The Yankees gave up three prospects in return for Paxton. One of those prospects was Justus Sheffield, who is the 31st best prospect in baseball and the third best left-handed pitcher on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 list. The second player was Triple-A pitcher Erik Swanson. The righty was ranked as the Yankees number 22 overall prospect. Meanwhile, the last player in the deal was Dom Thompson-Williams, an outfielder who spent last season in Low-A and High-A. He was not ranked in the Yankees top 30, but was considered a breakout and rising prospect in their system.
One thing to keep in mind is that the Yankees have one of the best farm systems in baseball, so while Swanson and Thompson-Williams were not highly rated, they very could have been in a lot of other systems. In fact, the Seattle Mariners MLB prospect rankings were updated and all three players were ranked. Sheffield is now the Mariner’s top prospect, Swanson is ranked at number 9, and Thompson-Williams at number 14.
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So what could have been a similar package from the Pittsburgh Pirates? Let’s base it on their prospect rankings, along with the positions that the Mariners received. Let’s start with a potential outfield prospect who would be comparable to Thompson-Williams. The most obvious candidate would be outfielder Jared Oliva. Like Thompson, Oliva spent his season at High-A and is now ranked as the Pittsburgh Pirates number 22 overall prospect. Like Thompson-Williams, Oliva had a breakout year season and is a rising prospect.
Next, let’s look for a comparable pitcher that would compare to Erik Swanson. Swanson likely will start the year in Triple-A in 2019, but also will likely make his début this upcoming year. There are two pitchers that could fill this slot. The first would be Clay Holmes. Holmes currently ranks as the team’s 15th best prospect and spent his 2018 season up and down between Triple-A and Double-A.
With that being said, he did not have much success at the big league level so that could make him less attractive than Swanson. The other prospect could have been Luis Escobar, who spent the last two months at Double-A last year. The Bucs number 11 prospect may be further away than Swanson, but he has a higher upside.
The last piece of the deal is the one that would hurt the most. Justus Sheffield is one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. The Pittsburgh Pirates also have one of the top pitching prospects in baseball in Mitch Keller. While Keller ranks a little higher on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 list at number 16 overall, he also is a righty. Sheffield likely holds similar value being that quality left-handed prospects are harder to find.
So what it comes down to is this. James Paxton is a very good proven left-handed pitcher in this league. He would have been an instant upgrade to this team’s rotation and likely would have been slotted in at number two between Taillon and Archer. However, it likely would have cost the Pittsburgh Pirates one of the best pitching prospects in baseball, as it did the Yankees. So would two years of James Paxton be worth losing Mitch Keller plus others? Given Paxton’s injury history and Keller upside and contractual control, it would have been a tough deal to make.