The Dichotomy of Contention: Yankees Bolster AL East Chances as Mariners Pull Plug

It’s been scarcely two weeks since the first report surfaced indicating that the Seattle Mariners’ winter plans might include “a full-fledged teardown.” Now, the team has pushed in one of its biggest trade chips: Starter James Paxton has been sent to the New York Yankees in exchange for a trio of prospects. Southpaw Justus Sheffield leads the pack, joined by fellow pitcher Erik Swanson and outfielder Dom Thompson-Williams.

The Yankees’ rotation was the part of their roster that most needed an upgrade, and this trade takes a big step to address that. When healthy, Paxton can be a top-tier lefty talent. His 2017 season demonstrated that nicely: 2.98 ERA, 140 ERA+, 4.2 K/BB. But when healthy is a key qualifier there. The 30-year-old has made separate trips to the disabled list for problems with his lower back, forearm (twice), pectoral muscle, and elbow—in just the last two-and-a-half years. As a result, he’s never posted an innings total above 165 IP.

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Paxton’s 2018 campaign was solid, if not totally remarkable. His 3.76 ERA and 108 ERA+ marked a step back from the season before; for the first time in his career, he allowed more flyballs than groundballs, which contributed to a home run rate that was more than double the one that he’d posted in 2016 and 2017. Still, there were significant bright spots, and at his best, he still looked like a clear ace. He set a career high for strikeouts, K’ing nearly a third of the batters he faced, and shaved a bit off of his walk rate. (And, oh, yeah, he threw a no-hitter.) With two years of team control remaining, he has the potential to function as a significant addition to the rotation. The Yankees aren’t necessarily done adding starting pitching—and they probably shouldn’t be, given that there isn’t quality depth here beyond the foursome of Paxton, Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka and C.C. Sabathia—but they’ve begun to bolster their chances of making a serious run for the title in the AL East in 2019.

So what did they have to give up to do it? It’s a decently sized prospect package. Sheffield is, by far, the jewel here. The 22-year-old will become the top prospect in Seattle’s system, and he’ll likely be able to contribute on the major league level for most of 2019. (He made his debut last year as a September call-up.) On last year’s midseason prospect rankings, FanGraphs had him as No. 54, and Baseball Prospectus had him at No. 40. He has plenty of upside, but you know what they say about pitching prospects—there’s no such thing as a sure thing. He’s battled concerns about his command in the past, and it’s possible that he ultimately won’t stick in the rotation. The ceiling is high, however, and he should be able to take on the major leagues soon.

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The 25-year-old Swanson, a righty starter, is also approaching the big-league level. Thompson-Williams, 23, might not be far behind. Neither has Sheffield’s pedigree, or anything close to it—Swanson, too, faces questions about whether he can stay in the rotation—but there’s a chance that both will be in a position to contribute to the club in the next year or two. For the Mariners, this seems to be the most important takeaway. Yes, they’re giving up one of their most important talents here—but they don’t seem to be aiming for a competitive window that’s too far down the road. This doesn’t have the appearance of a total rebuild, with a team stripped all the way down to the bones in order to gradually fill back out over five or six years. Instead, it looks like a more modest renovation, directed just two or three years out. That’s backed up by the fact that they targeted major-league-ready talent in their first trade of the winter, too, in exchange for Guillermo Heredia and Mike Zunino.

The Yankees were already in winning territory, and this trade just pushes them deeper into it. The Mariners were lingering on the border, and now they’ve taken a step away—but they look like they’re hoping to build for a return before too long.

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