Red Sox face complicated decision with James Paxton’s contract option

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 25: Chief Baseball Officer Chaim Bloom of the Boston Red Sox addresses the media during an end of season press conference on October 25, 2021 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 25: Chief Baseball Officer Chaim Bloom of the Boston Red Sox addresses the media during an end of season press conference on October 25, 2021 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images) /

The Boston Red Sox need to make a decision on James Paxton

Any sliver of hope that James Paxton could provide the Boston Red Sox with the late-season boost to their rotation that they needed to fight their way back into the playoff hunt went out the window with the news of an unfortunate setback. According to Julian McWilliams of The Boston Globe, Paxton suffered a Grade 2 tear in his lat, ending his season before it could begin.

Paxton, who was recovering from Tommy John surgery, made a rehab appearance in the Florida Complex League, but recorded only two outs before exiting with the injury that was later confirmed by an MRI.

The latest injury to sideline the lefty puts the Red Sox in a difficult spot with a looming decision regarding his contract this winter. Boston signed Paxton to a fairly unique deal last offseason that pays him $10 million this year ($5.8 million for luxury tax purposes) with a two-year, $26 million club option for the next two seasons. The team would need to commit to picking up both option years. If the Red Sox decline the option, Paxton has a $4 million player option he could pick up to remain with the team next season.

Or the lefty could elect free agency, in which case the Red Sox essentially paid him for a year to rehab without getting anything in return. That scenario is even more troubling when considering the payroll ramifications. According to FanGraphs, the Red Sox estimated payroll for luxury tax purposes puts them approximately $4.3 million over the threshold. The official numbers aren’t measured until after the season but if the Paxton contract ultimately ends up begin a factor in why a team that isn’t bound for the playoffs is paying the tax, this contract will be viewed as an even bigger disaster.

There was always going to be some inherent risk with signing a pitcher recovering from Tommy John surgery. Paxton has made only six appearances for a total of 21 2/3 innings over the last three seasons. The Red Sox knew he was going to miss the majority of the 2022 season.

The upside of potentially getting a pitcher of his caliber on a bargain deal for the next two seasons was too much to pass up though. In 2019, his last healthy season, Paxton made 29 starts for the Yankees, going 15-6 with a 3.82 ERA and 11.1 K/9. He owns a 3.59 ERA and 9.9 K/9 for his career. This is a frontline-caliber starter who would easily earn double his salary on the open market if there were no lingering questions about his health.

Those questions are now glaring warning signs in the wake of another injury that prevents him from making his season debut with the Red Sox. Can they commit to two more years of a pitcher who they never got the chance to see at the major league level this season?

According to Jen McCafffrey of the Athletic (subscription required), manager Alex Cora was encouraged by Paxton’s recovery. His fastball reached 95 mph in a simulated game this month and he had good movement on his cutter.

"“It’s hard because I saw the progress, I saw the stuff and we know the player,” Cora said. “When he’s healthy he’s really good. The angle and the cutter and all that. It’s disappointing but there’s nothing you can do about it.”"

Getting that type of pitcher for about $13 million in each of the next two seasons is a bargain if Paxton returned to form. It’s a payroll clogging albatross if he’s a shell of his former self or can’t stay healthy. The Red Sox desperately needed to see Paxton perform at the big league level before making this decision but they won’t get that chance now.

At this point, picking up the option years is an unnecessary gamble. With several other starters hitting free agency after this season, Boston can’t afford to bank on the health of Paxton and Chris Sale to lead a rotation that has Nick Pivetta as the only other starter locked in along with a young crop of pitchers who struggled with inconsistency as rookies this year. The Red Sox need to target a more reliable starting pitcher via trade or free agency this winter and committing a significant sum to an uncertain Paxton may be prohibitive to those efforts considering the Red Sox have several other holes to fill.

Paxton picking up the option on his end would be an ideal scenario. The risk is mitigated when the cost is only $4 million, which is about what it would cost to find a back of the rotation starter in free agency. The Red Sox would view him as a potential No. 5 starter or depth option with upside while saving some money that they can allocate toward a legitimate top of the rotation arm.

Would Paxton settle for the player option rather than test free agency? Considering his injury history, he probably can’t expect any lucrative offers. There’s always the risk that someone else will roll the dice to lure him away but sticking in Boston with the team that is already overseeing his rehab seems to be his best bet to bounce back with a one-year “prove it” season. If he declines the player option, a new incentive-laden deal with the Red Sox that would pay him more if he stays healthy and productive can’t be ruled out.

Chaim Bloom gambled on an injured pitcher and it didn’t pan out for this season. That doesn’t mean he was wrong to take that chance. You can’t find great values in free agency unless you’re willing to takes some chances. It didn’t work this time. Whether or not Paxton can still rectify this lost season by providing any value to this franchise will partially depend upon what the Red Sox decide to do about his contract. It’s a difficult dilemma but this pivotal decision will help shape next year’s rotation.

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