Big Maple to Big Apple

Justus Sheffield, playing for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (photo courtesy SWB RailRiders).

Prompting memories of 1998’s trade of Randy Johnson to the Astros, today Mariner General Manager Jerry Dipoto dealt his team's ace left-hander to an already-upper-echelon team: James Paxton is now a New York Yankee.

Much like the Johnson deal made by then-GM Woody Woodward, Paxton was traded for three relatively-unknown minor leaguers, two pitchers and one position player. One of them, left-handed starter Justus Sheffield, may be ready for the bigs as soon as next season. The other pitcher, righty Erik Swanson, has a chance to crack the bigs but will likely play in Tacoma next year, while the position player, 23-year-old outfielder Dom Thompson-Williams, has yet to play above Class-A.

Losing Paxton is a blow for the Mariners and their fan base. When healthy, The Big Maple, already author of a no-hitter, is among the most dominant pitchers in baseball; whomever inherits his Seattle rotation spot will have gigantic shoes to fill. The dedicated denizens of the Maple Grove cheering section at the former Safeco Field are left without their champion. The pitcher's friends and family from nearby British Columbia no longer have quick access to his games. And Mariner fans of all stripes can no longer look forward to potential 20-strikeout efforts every fifth day.

It's a sad turn of events.

However, there is an upside. Sheffield was the Yankees' top prospect and made his Major League debut as a September callup in 2018. At Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre last season, the 22-year-old went 6-4 with a 2.56 ERA, 36 walks and 84 strikeouts. Scranton/WB manager Bobby Mitchell thinks he's not-quite-ready for prime time, but will be before long. "He's very young," Mitchell said last June. "He's getting better all the time and it's a credit to him and his work ethic and the way he goes about his business. It's just a matter of time, really." Sheffield, who has been likened in stature and performance to former Mariner Mike Hampton, throws a mid-90s two-seamer, a power slider in the high 80s, an occasional curveball, and a moderate change that is reportedly too close in velocity to his fastball.

The Paxton deal feels a lot like the 1998 trade of Randy Johnson, which inspired this cartoon from the August 1998 issue of The Grand Salami (cartoon by Erik Lundegaard & Tim Harrison).

Swanson and Thompson-Williams (there's a name for the back of a jersey) aren't as enticing, but both could be solid Major League contributors someday. Swanson, 25, got his first promotion to Triple-A last year after dominating the Double-A Eastern League in the early part of the season (7 starts, 5-0, 0.42 ERA, 0.867 WHIP). He wasn't as strong at Scranton/WB, posting a 3-2 record and 3.86 ERA in 13 starts and one relief appearance; still respectable, just not as commanding. Thompson-Williams, whom Dipoto describes as "an electric athlete," will be 24 next season, a little on the old side for Class-A ball. He split 2018 among the A-level South Atlantic league and high-A Florida State league, his highest posting to date, but did put up impressive numbers, including an aggregate batting line of .299/.363/.546. His big problem appears to be a lack of plate discipline, as he has a pro career strikeout-to-walk ratio of more than 2:1, worsened last year by notching 102 Ks and walking all of 33 times.

 The trade followed the Johnson-to-Houston template almost exactly, save for the timing (Johnson was dealt the day of the 1998 July trading deadline). Like Paxton, there were concerns in the Mariner front office about Johnson's injury history and overall durability (Johnson pitched 200+ innings in 7 of the next 8 seasons; those fears weren't exactly well-founded then and may not be now), and in return for Johnson—who had four more Cy Young awards in his future—the M's received three players no one in the Northwest had ever heard of. Those three were pitchers Freddy Garcia and John Halama and infielder Carlos Guillén, only one of whom had any big-league experience (Halama, 6 games). All went on to be significant players for the Mariners, but would they have been better off with Johnson for those years?

There's one other significant difference: Johnson was in his contract year, while Paxton still has two years of team control before hitting free agency, making him an arguably more valuable asset and worth more on the trade market than was Johnson in ’98. Thanks to the mess that is MLB's salary arbitration system, Pax is in line to make something in the neighborhood of $20-$25 million in those two years, so there is a budgetary element to this deal. With salaries rocketing out of control as they have (relative to you and me, anyway; maybe someone can dig into what team revenues tended to be ten or twenty years ago and relate them to the high-end player salaries of the time, maybe it's not so crazy proportionately speaking), you can look at this two ways: A) The M's traded away two years of an ace at a relatively cheap salary compared to what they'd pay for a free-agent ace; or B) The M's saved themselves $20 million over the next two years to spread out over other player payroll needs. Both are valid, the relative merits of each take priority depending on your point of view.

What's done is done, though, and we can be sure there's more to follow. This trade did nothing to address the gaping hole the M's now have at catcher or the uncertainty at first base and created, perhaps, more of a need for Majors-ready starting pitching depth (assuming Dipoto intends to contend in 2019). The farm isn't much help, thanks mostly to the mismanagement of the previous two regimes, and the best options that are in the system came from somewhere else.

The homegrown Mariner is even more of an endangered species now than it was yesterday; with Paxton gone, the 2019 roster projects to have just three Seattle-drafted or -developed players: Kyle Seager, Felix Hernández, and Edwin Díaz (if you're feeling generous, you can add Dan Altavilla and Matt Festa, who will probably be in Triple-A). Writing in The Athletic, Corey Brock put it this way:

Dealing away a homegrown player like Paxton is a bitter pill for an organization that—on top of all the other bad press—is going to great lengths to revamp its player development model with hopes of graduating more impact players to the big leagues, a problem that has continually troubled the franchise over the last two decades.

If Dipoto doesn't trade them away, there are Seattle-drafted impact prospects in the system, but still in the low minors and at least a year or two away.

Meanwhile, the Big Maple will be sorely missed, and seeing him in Yankee pinstripes will be exceptionally painful. In the next few years, Sheffield, Swanson, and/or Thompson-Williams may become Mariner mainstays, but they might never cleanse the bad taste left in the mouths of many Seattle fans by trading James Paxton.

Justus Sheffield

Erik Swanson

Dom Thompson-Williams

Pax Reax

What's your take on the James Paxton-to-the-Yankees trade?


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