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Félix is ours, and you can’t have him. It’s a declarative statement against the whirling roar that defined Mariners baseball since 2005. When we said “you” in that statement, it could’ve referred to a number of targets, but it almost always meant “The Yankees”. No matter the hardships the Mariners and their fans faced, we were able to watch Félix Hernández pitch every fifth day. Now, the King is in his twilight, and his northern successor is on the trading block, with the Yankees as the seeming frontrunner in trade talks.
#Yankees among teams that have spoken to #Mariners about a trade for LHP James Paxton, sources tell The Athletic. Paxton has two years of control left and is projected by @mlbtraderumors to earn $9M in arbitration next season. NYY also on free-agent LH starters Corbin, Happ, etc.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) November 9, 2018
How times have changed. The Yankees system is one of the deepest in the game (although temporarily lower in prospect rankings due to a number of high-profile graduations in 2018, including Gleyber Torres, Miguel Andujar, Domingo Germán, and Jonathan Loaisiga. Still, the Bronx Bombers have two consensus Top-100 prospects in LHP Justus Sheffield and OF Estevan Florial, along with a seemingly endless parade of high-ceiling, reliever floor titans hurling upper 90s fastballs. Seattle needs, well, everything, so there’s no need to pigeonhole their targets, but a return for Paxton could take a few forms. I’ll list a few, and go into detail.
Yankees receive: LHP James Paxton
Mariners receive: LHP Justus Sheffield, OF Estevan Florial, and literally throw a dart at one (1) of RHPs Deivi Garcia, Freicer Perez, Domingo Acevedo, Luis Gil, Matt Sauer, etc., there are so many options.
Yankees receive: LHP James Paxton
Mariners receive: LHP Justus Sheffield, SS Thairo Estrada, and two (2) of the many arms listed above, including RHP Albert Abreu.
Why This Works:
The Yankees are close. They’re clearly one of the 4-5 best teams in baseball, with the youth and endless coffers to remain there eternally, assuming they aren’t too cheap. But right now they’re behind. Their arch-rivals surpassed them last season and seem well-positioned to sustain dominance. Despite a lineup that broke the single-season home run record for a team, the 2018 Yankees were felled by a thin and inexperienced rotation that couldn’t shepherd games to their dynamite bullpen. Paxton changes things. Adding the Big Maple would give New York a rotation of Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, Paxton, C.C. Sabathia, and their choice of Germán, Loaisiga, Chance Adams, and whomever else they might magick out of their farm. That’s a group capable of challenging Boston’s AL East supremacy, and Paxton’s cost-controlled salary wouldn’t be likely to affront the suddenly penny-pinching franchise appraised as the 5th-most valuable in all of sports.
For Seattle, the deal is a chance to reset the farm, and like the other deals we’ve outlined for Pax, the return trends towards players who will help the team most in 2020-21 and beyond. Sheffield is the headliner, and seems all but assured to be part of a return for Pax in the event of a Yankees-based trade. Sheffield is the No. 54 overall prospect in baseball by Fangraphs, No. 22 by Baseball America, and No. 31 by MLB. The 22-year-old lefty is, in many ways, a Paxton-lite in essence. His frame is smaller (just 5’10, which could be baseball speak for 5’8, but doesn’t seem too exaggerated), but the velocity is 92-97 on a sinking fastball and despite his young age he’s been dominant at the upper levels of the minors. Sheffield works fastball-slider-changeup, with less-than-ideal separation between his fastball and changeup velocity-wise. The slider, however, has good break, and the velocity is a plus. The scouting consensus on him places him in the No. 3 starter range, most likely, which is to say he’d offer an amusingly contrasted pathway to similar production with Marco Gonzales. If the Mariners trade Paxton to the Yankees, it’s all but assured Sheffield will be part of their return.
Beyond Sheffield, it’s a divergent pathway. If you’re of the mind that return should include the best possible talent, no matter position, OF Estevan Florial is probably the player to peg. Despite a broken hamate bone in his right wrist interrupting his season, Florial posted decent numbers for a 20-year-old in High-A this year, with a .255/.354/.361 line that should be judged with some rust. Hamate injuries are notorious for lingering and sapping power until the following season, so it’s not hard to imagine Florial bringing more pop in 2019, especially as a player whose raw power and athleticism make scouts swoon. Whereas most experts seem confident in Sheffield having a useful MLB floor, the trouble with Florial is his tendency to swing and miss even in the low-minors makes him easier to peg as a bust candidate, even as his All-Star ceiling stretches high.
If you are lukewarm on Florial, or feel that while Best Value Available is important, at a certain point the Mariners will need to have literally any prospects able to play middle infield, Thairo Estrada can slot in as the ostensible “secondary piece”. Estrada has had a quick shake in AAA, but most of 2018 was a lost year for him. Why? Estrada was shot in the hip last January while visiting his homeland of Venezuela. Estrada was available to be seen in the Arizona Fall League this year after only playing in 18 games in the regular season, split between High-A and Triple-A. By most scouting accounts, Estrada looks physically back to full health at this point, and the rust is wearing off as well. When healthy, Estrada is less a scouts dream and more the type of player who has gotten by on results, but the results are still there. The 22-year-old fits the mold of the players Dipoto has targeted, which is to say he has a low-K% and contact-heavy approach, as well as no single “WOW” skill, but competency in every box. Between a flat swing and a smaller frame, Estrada isn’t likely to hit for power, but as a reportedly above-average defender at shortstop he’d have a lower bar to clear. At worst, Estrada is a dependable young utility guy, and since he’s already occupying a 40-man spot, the deep Yankees would likely be happy to clear an extra spot for another at-risk Rule-5 prospect.
The arms beyond could vary, and I won’t go too much beyond the 1000 words I’ve already included on them, but I’ll offer some brief context on each:
RHP Albert Abreu: The most traditional high-ceiling of this group, Abreu is a fringe top-100 guy on stuff alone. Several non-structural injuries have slowed his development, but Abreu brings triple-digit heat and a power breaking ball. He also has struggled with command and is freshly 23 with just one appearance above High-A. I see the ace-ceiling appeal, but I’m lower on Abreu than most, particularly if the industry appraisal of him lines up with how the Yankees value him.
RHP Deivi Garcia: On the opposite end of the spectrum, I am utterly infatuated with Garcia. He’s a short king at “5’10”, but has 92-95 mph heat with good arm-side run and a 3000+ RPM curveball with great bite and a changeup that should play as a starter. Just 19, the diminutive righty was utterly dominant across three levels, up to AA last year, but is still quite literally overlooked due to his size. Garcia’s lack of prospect hype could make him attainable along with another lottery ticket arm, a must for the pitching depth-starved M’s.
RHP Domingo Acevedo: It’s Big Boy Season year-round for the Yankees and Acevedo is one of their most impressive goliaths. At 6’7, 250 lbs, Acevedo has upper 90s-to-low-100s stuff that pairs with a decent slider and changeup. There are concerns, like many players with his profile, as to if the violence of his delivery might better fit as a reliever than a starter, but even if he becomes a Nathan Eovaldi-esque enigma, he could be an impact player. At age-24 (25 before 2019 begins), the clock is beginning to tick, and Acevedo could also be a Rule-5 target otherwise.
RHP Freicer Perez: If you looked at Acevedo and thought, “Mmm, a little too small,” one, you’ve got some standards that merit further investigation, but two, Freicer Perez is your colossus of choice. The 6’8, 240 lbs righty has a smoother delivery than Acevedo but still brings mid-to-upper 90s heat. His offspeed pitches seem to lag behind to scouts, despite bringing a curve, slider, and changeup all to the table at times. Unfortunately, injuries cut short and hampered his age-22 season in High-A, and he’ll need to show health and refinement, despite a mid-rotation ceiling.
RHP Matt Sauer: Sauer looks the part, standing 6’4 with plenty of velocity and hilarious numbers in high school coming from Southern California. It took the Yankees $2.5 million to lure Sauer away from college in the second round of the 2017 draft, despite his coming off Tommy John surgery, so they may want to see more on their investment. The 19-year-old has plenty to dream on, regardless.
RHP Luis Gil: Another low-minors strikeout machine, Gil broke into short season ball this year at age-20. His command has been an issue, but his stuff has been electric. With less prospect luster than several of the players here, it’s not unreasonable to think Gil could be an add on along with another arm on this list.
For the Yankees, the risk, and the reasons they wouldn’t do the deal, are simple. If they think they can nearly replicate the production of Paxton with what they have (doubtful), or doubt Paxton can give a full season, plus playoffs (more reasonable), they may balk at paying a No. 2 starter cost for a guy with No. 1 starter rate stats but No. 4 starter inning totals. Still, from what we’ve heard publicly and whispered privately, New York seems like Paxton’s likeliest home in 2019.
For the Mariners, the risk is, of course, any variant of the above deal set back their hopes of contention at least a couple years, and while it gives a suggestion of greater production long term, there are no guarantees. This is not Stanford, and prospects are not marshmallows., no matter what the Brewers’ newest affiliate tries to tell you. The probability is good, but the Mariners will have to develop the high-end talents they receive into fully formed big leaguers. The reason they would have the opportunity to do so was their ability to develop Paxton into an ace beyond his expected “ceiling”, but they’ll have to do so again. I obviously put this deal together, but if Seattle is looking at 2020-2022 as their next “window”, I like a deal of this framework, with the caveat that they’ll be betting on themselves to continue developing each guy they acquire.
I would be remiss if I didn’t at least touch on another pathway the Mariners could go, which is uniquely situated in dealing with the Yankees. If Seattle is hoping to fully reset things, they likely want to move Robinson Canó. Despite still being quite productive, Canó is halfway through a deal that still has 5 years/$120 million to go. Few teams could afford a burdensome deal like that, but the Yankees could, especially if the Mariners accepted OF Jacoby Ellsbury in return, who is still owed at least 2 years/$47 million. That’s a sizable gap, clearly, but the gap in production is also immense.
Even at age-35, Robi put up a 3 fWAR season in just 80 games, and a prime-level 136 wRC+. Between the famously diligent dedication Canó has to maintaining his form and the potential links between steroid use and outperforming expectations late in careers, even once steroid use has stopped, it’s not hard to see Robi providing “surplus value” for another couple seasons, be it at 2B, 1B, 3B, DH, or a blend of all three. Meanwhile, Ellsbury missed the entirety of 2018, hasn’t been an above-average player since 2014, and is not a lock to be ready for Opening Day, 2019. Where the money would need to meet is hard to auger, but there is a spot. New York will miss Didi Gregorious for at least part, and potentially all of 2019 after undergoing Tommy John surgery in October. Both Ellsbury and Canó have no-trade clauses, so there are several levels of separation between any deal and actualization, it’s possibly the only place Canó could be moved. For fans who have derived much of their Mariners-based joy from Paxton and Canó over the past few years, that might be a double-strike to the gut. It’s a worthwhile thought, but if the options rest between retaining Canó or receiving fewer prospects in return, my preference would be to pay Robi and surround him with more players who could be great.
It will feel bad for many fans no matter where Paxton is traded. He is one of the last fully homegrown players in the organization, a lone holdover from an era filled with hope and prospects and Big Threes that became one Big Maple. I find it fairly easy to compartmentalize my love of players with my desire to find the best pathway for the team to succeed, but that is largely a function of attempting to write useful information here, and is no better or worse than any other way of appraising trades of this sort. A return like the one listed above sets the Mariners’ sights long down the river, around several bends, where we know little and less. This is a chance for something good for everyone involved, even if it stings.