Red Sox bet on the future by signing lefty James Paxton
Boston Red Sox are gambling on the recovering James Paxton
We’ve been waiting for the Boston Red Sox to make a meaningful addition to their pitching staff and they came through just in time before a potential lockout. They just had to get a little creative with the contract.
According to Sportsnet’s Chad Day, the Red Sox have agreed to a deal with free-agent left-handed pitcher James Paxton. ESPN’s Jeff Passan reports that it’s a one-year, $10 million deal that includes a two-year club option. Alex Speier of The Boston Globe adds that if the option is picked up, Paxton’s deal could reach a total of $35 million through the 2024 season.
The unique structure of the contract shows the Red Sox are willing to roll the dice on a pitcher rehabbing from Tommy John surgery in order to get a potential bargain for two additional seasons. Paxton underwent surgery in April for a procedure that typically has a 12-14 month recovery. He won’t be ready to begin the 2022 season and we shouldn’t expect to see him until sometime in the second half.
Chris Sale had this same surgery at the end of March in 2020 and didn’t pitch in a major league game until August of this year. Paxton’s surgery was in late-April so it would be surprising if he returns earlier than Sale did. Not every pitcher recovers the same way but we should assume the Red Sox will be as cautious with Paxton as they were with Sale by bringing him along slowly.
Paxton could return to give the Red Sox a boost down the stretch, similar to a trade deadline acquisition. It’s impossible to predict if he’ll be anywhere near his peak form when he returns to the mound but we saw with Sale that a pitcher can come back strong from Tommy John in the middle of a season, even if the workload needs to be carefully monitored.
While his injury history is concerning, Paxton has been among the league’s best pitchers when healthy. In part of seven seasons with the Seattle Mariners, the lefty went 41-26 with a 3.42 ERA, 9.5 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9. The New York Yankees acquired him in 2019 and he went 15-6 with a 3.82 ERA and 11.1 K/9 during his first season in the Bronx.
A flexor strain in his left arm limited Paxton to only five starts during the shortened 2020 season. The Mariners tried to buy low by bringing him back this year but Paxton only lasted 1 1/3 innings before blowing out his arm.
The Red Sox are spending $10 million on a pitcher without knowing how many innings they will get out of him this season. Barring any significant setbacks, we know Paxton will be on the mound at some point next season. Boston needs to see how he performs at the major league level before determining if they want to pick up the option to retain him for two more seasons. If he proves down the stretch that he can make an impact in the rotation, overpaying for one year will be worthwhile if it means getting a former ace at a discount through 2024.
The Los Angeles Angels are paying Noah Syndergaard $21 million on a one-year deal. Thor pitched a couple of innings for the Mets in September following his recovery from Tommy John surgery so he should be ready to begin next season on time. He’s getting paid more than double what Paxton will earn, which seems fair since Paxton might miss at least half the season. The difference is that if Syndergaard returns to form, the Angels only have him for one year. They’ll need to pay him a bigger contract if they want to keep him beyond next season. If Paxton thrives in his limited time with the Red Sox, he can be locked up for two more years at a discount total of only $25 million.
The Houston Astros re-signed Justin Verlander with a 2-year, $50 million deal. He can opt-out after next season, essentially turning the second year into a player option. Verlander missed the entire 2021 season recovering from Tommy John but should be ready to begin next season. If he performs well, he could opt-out to seek an even bigger deal. If he’s a shell of his former self, the Astros are stuck carrying dead weight for another year. The two-time Cy Young award winner and former MVP has tremendous upside but he’s also turning 39 years old before the season begins and is coming back from major surgery.
Based on what those two top of the rotation-caliber pitchers are earning in the wake of their recovery from Tommy John surgery, Paxton’s salary for next season seems fair if you assume he’s missing about half the season. It could backfire if he suffers a setback and doesn’t return at all next year or if he performs poorly. In either case, the Red Sox probably need to cut bait rather than risk committing to two more years.
If he shows enough down the stretch to convince the Red Sox that he can return to being anything close to the pitcher he once was, picking up his option will be an easy decision. Paxton has the potential to be an excellent No. 3 starter behind Sale and Nathan Eovaldi. If he performs well enough for his option to be picked up, he provides insurance beyond next season when Sale and Eovaldi could potentially hit free agency.
This is the second time in his career that Paxton has had Tommy John surgery. He’s already shown he can be effective coming back from this procedure and Eovaldi has proven that a pitcher can bounce back from having this surgery for a second time. He’s certainly more of a risk than other pitchers but it’s also realistic to believe that Paxton can return to pitching at an elite level.
Paxton is a gamble who won’t pay immediate dividends but he has the upside to give the Red Sox a front-line starter without requiring the price tag of an ace.