Reimagine a Mariners starting rotation without its most talented pitcher going into the 2019 season.
As part of general manager Jerry Dipoto’s offseason of change, which isn’t a teardown, a build-up or a reset, but a re-imagining of the roster, Seattle has traded talented, but at times enigmatic left-handed pitcher James Paxton to the New York Yankees in exchange for three prospects – left-handed pitcher Justus Sheffield, right-handed pitcher Erik Swanson and outfielder Dom Thompson-Williams.
“To add three dynamic athletes who are entering the prime of their respective careers, while also maintaining six seasons of club control for each, is very exciting,” Dipoto said in a statement.
“Justus Sheffield has an unquestionable prospect pedigree. With a combination of high-end velocity to go along with an advanced slider and a developing changeup, we think Justus has a chance to pitch at the upper portion of our rotation soon. Erik Swanson has performed at every level, combining a mid-90s fastball as well as two effective secondary pitches. At 25 years old, he is just entering the prime years of his career, and we think he will impact our Major League club in the near future. Dom Thompson-Williams is an electric athlete, who we think will move quickly through our minor league system. He brings a powerful left-handed bat, speed on the bases and athleticism in the outfield.”
Later in a conference call with local media, Dipoto said the team’s plan was to take a “step back” in 2019 with the roster and on-field roster with a focus for the 2020 and 2021 seasons.
“With the hope we can take two steps forward,” he said.
That step back could include more trades to subtract older players from the roster. Shortstop Jean Segura, who has a no-trade clause in his contract, could be the next to be dealt, along with reliever Alex Colome. Seattle would also unload second baseman Dee Gordon and third baseman Kyle Seager if given the opportunity. Dipoto reiterated that closer Edwin Diaz, left-handed starter Marco Gonzales and outfielder Mitch Haniger aren’t priorities to be traded, but aren’t untouchable.
“We are going to stay open minded to anything with a general ‘never say never,’ ” he said. “With Marco, with Mitch with Eddie, we would have to be blown away to move players like that. That’s what we are trying to acquire. We do want to be open minded to how we can make our roster better sooner than later, but it’s hard to envision ways we are going to make it better on the sooner end without guys like that around. They’re very important to what we are doing.”
Sources said early in the offseason that trading Paxton, who had two years of arbitration eligibility remaining before free agency, would be a priority for the Mariners in an effort to capitalize on a weak starting pitching market and infuse some younger talent into the organization.
“Pax did draw a ton of interest,” Dipoto said. “I think roughly two-thirds of the league checked in on him as we went down to the GM meetings and coming out of them. This is something we’ve been working on for well over a month, dating back into early October when we determined the idea of where we want to go with our roster.”
The Yankees had been looking for a starting pitcher to fill out their rotation and settled on Paxton instead of going through free agency.
“Definitely a focus for us,” said Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. “He was the one we could find common ground with, a trade we could live with.”
Paxton, 30, started 28 games in 2018, posting an 11-6 with a 3.76 ERA (67 ER, 160 1/3 IP) with 208 strikeouts and 42 walks. He ranked ninth in the American League in strikeouts, and among A.L. pitchers with at least 160 innings pitched last season, he was third in strikeouts per nine innings pitched (11.68), fourth in strikeout to walk ratio (4.95), seventh in WHIP (1.10/42 BB, 134 H) and ninth in opponents’ average against (.224/134 for 598). He had two separate stints on the disabled list for back spasms and a left forearm contusion.
“It seems to me that Seattle is trying to go young right now and kind of building for the future and so my window I guess is only for the next two years,” Paxton said. “I think they are going young. That being said, my experience in Seattle has been fantastic. Everybody has treated me so well and they really groomed me and taught me a lot. I worked with some great managers, some great coaches and great teammates. Can’t say enough about the fans who welcomed me into Seattle, from the Maple Grove and all my friends and family who came down and made the drive two hours from Vancouver. Seattle will always be a special place in my heart and always have a love of the city and wish nothing but the best for Seattle and the Seattle Mariners.”
Of the three prospects acquired, Sheffield is the most highly regarded. He was considered the Yankees’ No. 1 prospect in their organization by Baseball America, MLB.com and Fangraphs.
Sheffield, 22, spent most of the 2018 season with Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre, where he posted a 6-4 record with a 2.56 ERA (25 ER, 88 IP) with 84 strikeouts and 36 walks in 15 starts and five relief appearances. He also made five starts with Double-A Trenton, going 1-2 with a 2.25 ERA (7 ER, 28 IP) with 39 strikeouts and 14 walks. He made his Major League debut on Sept. 19 vs. the Red Sox, pitching 2 2/3 innings and allowing three runs.
There have been questions about his pitch efficiency and ability to throw enough strikes to match his quality stuff, which includes a mid-90s fastball.
“It’s a bad return,” said one opposing scout, who felt the Mariners should’ve come away with more from a Yankees system that has a slew of talented prospects. “Most people I spoke to this year think he’s a reliever.”
But those were also similar criticisms of Paxton when he was Sheffield’s age and trying to break into the big leagues. The Mariners believe Sheffield profiles as a front-of-the-rotation starter similar to Paxton.
“We wanted to find impact,” Dipoto said. “We wanted to support it with stability and we wanted to find upside. In this trade, we were able to address all three, multiple times over. With Justus Sheffield, we think he’s a close-to or Major League-ready left-handed starter with big impact. We see Justus as an upper-part of the rotation pitcher, who can go out there take the ball every fifth day against the best teams in the league. Clearly he still has some things to work on and the adjustments that will inevitably come at the Major League level. But the chance for a real impact pitcher is very real with Justus Sheffield.”
Both Sheffield and Swanson will come into spring training to compete for a spot in the rotation. If Sheffield makes the opening day roster, he would join right-handers Felix Hernandez and Mike Leake and lefties Marco Gonzales and Wade LeBlanc in the rotation.
“It definitely caught me by surprise,” Sheffield said. “They told me they were excited for me to come over and were excited to see what I could do for spring training. They said I’ll have every opportunity and chance in spring training to go out there and show what I can do.”
Swanson, 25, was rated the No. 22 prospect in the Yankees organization by MLB.com. He split the 2018 season between Trenton and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, posting a combined 8-2 record with a 2.58 ERA (33 ER, 115 IP) in 20 starts and two relief appearances. He averaged 10.41 strikeouts per 9 innings (133 SO, 115.0 IP), while limiting opponents to a .204 (85 for 416) opponents’ batting average. Most scouts believe that he profiles as a back-end of the rotation or a swing reliever in the bullpen with the ability to pitch multiple innings.
Thompson-Williams, 23, spent most of 2018 with High-A Tampa, hitting .290 (96 for 331) with 56 runs, 16 doubles, four triples, 17 home runs, 65 RBIs and 17 stolen bases in 90 games. A left-handed hitting outfielder, he’s never played above the High-A level and was a fifth-round pick in 2016.
This is Dipoto’s second major move of the offseason, having traded catcher Mike Zunino to the Rays for outfielder Mallex Smith and outfield prospect Jake Fraley.
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