How the Red Sox should address James Paxton’s contract situation

Red Sox pitcher James Paxton (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images)
Red Sox pitcher James Paxton (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images) /

James Paxton signed with the Boston Red Sox on December 1, 2021.

After having Tommy John surgery in April of last year, he wasn’t expected to pitch again until the second half of the 2022 season (at the earliest). Unfortunately, Paxton’s health ended up being an issue all season. Even after it seemed like he was on his way back, he suffered a tear in his lat which guaranteed that he wouldn’t take the field for the Red Sox at all in 2022.

The Red Sox should not pick up James Paxton’s 2-year club option, but the two sides may still seek a mutually beneficial reunion.

The Sox paid Paxton $10M for exactly zero big-league pitches last season, and now they’re faced with a decision, one they only have until 5 days following the conclusion of the World Series to make:

  • Pick up his 2-year, $26 million club option
  • Decline his club option, which then converts to a 1-year, $4 million player option

Paxton, who turns 34 in November, has a career 3.59 ERA, but has only logged 150+ innings twice in his 9-year career (2018, 2019).

While Paxton might have a higher ceiling than some of this offseason’s free agents, like Taijuan Walker, Andrew Heaney, and Tyler Anderson, these starters managed to stay healthy and produce for their teams in recent seasons. The same can’t be said for Paxton.

According to Spotrac, the aforementioned pitchers are expected to get 3 or 4-year deals ranging in value from $34.9 million and $55.3 million. An average annual value (AAV) of $11.6-13.8M puts them in the same ballpark as the AAV of the Sox’ 2-year club option on Paxton.

It’s highly unlikely the Sox pick up the veteran’s club option. They can get similar production at a similar value with lower risk via the free-agent market, or even a higher-caliber arm with their newfound financial flexibility.

However, it wouldn’t be particularly surprising if Paxton chose to exercise his 1-year player option when the Sox decline their side of the deal. This wouldn’t be the worst outcome if Paxton can stay on the field in 2023. This would mean that the team spent $14 million ($10 million in 2022 and $4 million in 2023) for a proven starting pitcher. If Paxton ultimately makes 25-30 starts in 2023 and posts a mid-3 ERA, the deal’s value would be relatively good.

If Paxton declines his 1-year player option, I think the Red Sox should at least “kick the tires” by extending an offer to him in free agency. However, the offer would need to be almost entirely dependent on his ability to stay healthy and produce.

An offer I could see the Red Sox extending to Paxton if he declines his player option would be:

  • 1-year, $4M base salary
  • $1M bonus each if he reaches 26, 28, 30, 32 starts
  • $500k bonus for All-Star selection
  • $500k bonus for Top 10 Cy Young award (+$1M for winning Cy Young award)
  • Total (max), 2023: $10M
  • Total, 2022 and 2023: $20M

I don’t think Paxton will get $8+ million in guaranteed money from any team to play in 2023. He might get a two-year deal with a lower AAV ($5M to $7M), but even that seems like a stretch after his past few seasons.

The deal proposed above offers major benefits for both sides:

It presents a low-risk, high-reward scenario for the Red Sox. The team would be getting a starting pitcher at a relatively low base salary of $4M (+$10M from 2022). If he is unable to stay healthy and makes fewer than 25 starts, there wouldn’t be much payroll tied up in the deal at all. If he is an All-Star in 2023, makes 32+ starts, and wins the AL Cy Young award (wouldn’t that be nice!), the Red Sox would have only paid $20M (between 2022 and 2023) for an ace next season.

It gives James Paxton an opportunity to prove that he can stay healthy and be a top-of-the-rotation arm. Paxton has pitched like an ace at times throughout his career. From 2017-19, he averaged 27 starts per year with a sub-4 ERA in all 3 seasons (2.98, 3.76, and 3.82). His xERA was even better (2.76, 3.45, and 3.69). At 34 years old next season, he will be motivated to prove that he can pitch effectively into his late 30s like Charlie Morton (38), Zack Greinke (39), Max Scherzer (38), Justin Verlander (39), and others. This type of deal allows him to bet on himself, which could pay off in a major way if he can return to form.

It wouldn’t be prudent for the Sox to pick up Paxton’s 2-year club option. His value, even if his health wasn’t still a major concern, would not be much higher than $13M per year at this point in his career. Assuming the team declines his 2-year option:

  • If he chooses to exercise his 1-year, $4 million player option, he will add to the depth of the starting rotation next season. Having a pitcher of his caliber under contract offers some nice upside at a low price.
  • If he declines his 1-year player option, the Red Sox should consider pursuing him in free agency. However, the deal should be a short-term one with a low base salary and a focus on rewarding his ability to stay on the field.