Pittsburgh Pirates Free Agent Target: Starting Pitcher James Paxton

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - AUGUST 02: James Paxton #65 of the New York Yankees in action against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on August 02, 2020 in New York City. New York Yankees defeated the Boston Red Sox 9-7. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - AUGUST 02: James Paxton #65 of the New York Yankees in action against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on August 02, 2020 in New York City. New York Yankees defeated the Boston Red Sox 9-7. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images) /
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The Pittsburgh Pirates have stated that now with the trades of Jameson Taillon and Joe Musgrove, they’ll be turning their attention to grabbing some starting pitching depth. If the season were to start right now, the only two locks for the rotation would be left-hander Steven Brault and young right-hander Mitch Keller.

However, the rest of the rotation would be up for grabs between the likes of J.T. Brubaker, Chad Kuhl, Cody Ponce, Wil Crowe and possibly recently brought in prospect Miguel Yajure.

With that, the Pittsburgh Pirates could use a more proven arm in the rotation. One that might be looking for a one-year deal to rebuild his value is southpaw James Paxton. Paxton would essentially be guaranteed a starting rotation spot and would be a nice low risk/high reward pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates to go after.

Paxton struggled throughout the 2020 season with the New York Yankees. He pitched just 20.1 innings surrendering 15 earned runs on 23 hits, 4 of which left the park for home runs. However, he still had a strong 28.9% strikeout rate, 7.8% walk rate and 3.88 SIERA. He was also still above average in terms of expected batting average (.255, top 62nd percentile), xwOBA (.301, top 53rd percentile) and expected ERA (4.12, top 53rd percentile).

Plus in the three seasons prior to 2020, Paxton was a very solid pitcher. In 447 innings pitched with the Seattle Mariners and Yankees, Paxton posted a 3.54 ERA, 3.26 FIP and 1.161 WHIP. Paxton made batters go down on strike three 30.1% of the time while showing off solid control with a 7.3% walk rate. To go with that, he only allowed home runs at a 1.11 per 9 rate.

ERA estimators also pinned Paxton as an above average pitcher. The left hander had a 3.43 xFIP, 3.45 SIERA and was consistently above average in terms of DRA. In total, Paxton racked up 11.6 fWAR. Across those three seasons, he averaged just under 4 fWAR per season.

Now while Paxton may be a 4 fWAR pitcher at his best, he’s far from durable. Paxton has missed time because of an injury almost every year he has been in the major leagues. The last time he went an entire season without an injury list stint was 2013, which was his debut season. He’s never started more than 30 games in a season and he averaged less than 150 innings per year from 2017 to 2019, coming out at 149.

Now just how much Paxton would command on a one year deal is up in the air. The free agent market isn’t what it would normally be for obvious reasons. Pitchers who have struggled with health in the past like Drew Smyly, Garrett Richards and Corey Kluber are commanding deals worth at least $10 million just for one guaranteed season (Richards has an option for 2022). Paxton has been more effective than either Smyly or Richards the past handful of seasons as well.

Still, Pittsburgh would be a good landing spot for Paxton. It would be a low-pressure environment with defense that is improving. The Pittsburgh Pirates will likely have one of the best defensive left sides of the infield with Ke’Bryan Hayes and Cole Tucker at third base and shortstop.

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With the trade of Josh Bell, they’ll get a more defensively competent duo of Colin Moran and Phillip Evans at first base. Bryan Reynolds took massive steps forward defensively in 2020 and have both Anthony Alford and Jared Oliva on hand as players who could be plus defenders in the grass. More importantly, he’d go from a well below average defensive catcher in Gary Sanchez, who’s had -6 DRS and -6.8 framing runs since Paxton’s arrival in New York, to Jacob Stallings, a 2020 Gold Glove finalist who’s tied for second in catcher DRS since the beginning of 2019 at +21. Plus it would almost guarantee that Paxton would be traded to a team in a playoff race before the end of the season. The Pirates may be able to get a good retun if Paxton bounces back to his 2017-2019 form.

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