There are no guarantees for a 27-year-old pitcher long regarded as a work in progress, but James Paxton is pretty sure of one thing: When he shows up for spring training in a few weeks, he’ll have more fun than he did a year ago.
Paxton went to camp competing with Nathan Karns for a spot in the Mariners 2016 rotation. The winner would be assigned the job as the team’s fifth starter. The loser would be assigned to Tacoma. Karns impressed nobody, but he got the job because Paxton spent spring training fattening batting averages throughout the Cactus League.
“Spring training was difficult,” Paxton recalled Thursday during the Mariners preseason media day at Safeco Field. “I didn’t enjoy myself. I was in a bad place. You guys all saw that. It was ugly.”
If Paxton’s demotion was a slap in the face, it put him in position to rescue a promising career hindered by nagging injuries and self-confidence issues. He was optioned to Tacoma with catcher Mike Zunino, another former prospect whose attempt to play up to his potential posed more questions than answers.
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“We were able to go down there and focus on ourselves,” said Paxton. “In the big leagues, it’s about winning. In Triple-A and the minor leagues, it’s about getting yourself to a place where you can help out the big league club. Obviously, you want the minor leagues to be a success and win baseball games, but primarily it’s about being able to kind of take a step back and focus on in-game things.
“The coaching staff did a fantastic job working with all of us. I know Scott Brosius was a big help to Zunino. The strides a lot of us made in Triple-A, and then coming up to help the team after that, were really good.”
The strides Paxton made in Tacoma were immediately evident. Rainiers pitching coach Lance Painter, who worked with Paxton in Double-A, suggested a delivery adjustment — a slightly lowered arm slot — that added zip to the left-hander’s fastball and action to his cutter.
“It was amazing how fast it happened, once I figured out what I needed to do,” Paxton said. “There was one start when I was throwing 90-91 (mph), and the next I was at 95-96. It’s such a small thing, I feel I should have noticed it myself. But when you’re in the moment, it’s hard to make the adjustment.”
On June 1, after 11 starts in Tacoma, Paxton was promoted. And though his Mariners numbers weren’t gaudy — he finished 6-7, with a 3.73 ERA — his fastball, along with a darting cutter that many analysts regard to be the best in baseball, were a late-season revelation.
“We had some teams come through here, and their general managers would share with me that James Paxton’s stuff was as good as they saw all year,” said Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto. “We saw real changes: a velocity uptick, consistency with the secondary stuff, and a cutter that’s become a knockout pitch.”
Power lefties are coveted. But power lefties with an aversion to keeping it simple —complicating what doesn’t need to be complicated — can be a frustration. A cerebral sort who admits his tendency to overthink on the mound has stalled him, Paxton believes he has achieved substantial progress, both mentally and physically, from the fifth-starter candidate whose 2016 spring-training audition turned into a statistical bonfire.
So does manager Scott Servais.
“He’s a totally different guy, and not just mechanically,” said Servais. “He’s a major league winning pitcher, and not just a major league pitcher. There’s a difference. He expects to go out there every night, go deep into games, and win the ballgame for us.
“In spring training a year ago, he was just trying to make the team, trying to become a major league pitcher. Now he’s a major league winning pitcher. He’s in a really good spot.”
Paxton also is in an unanticipated spot: Among the trio of Mariners’ minor league pitching prospects once touted as rotation cogs for the better part of a decade, he’s the survivor.
Danny Hultzen, the second overall selection of the 2011 draft, has retired, a victim of perpetual shoulder problems. Taijuan Walker was traded to Arizona in the Thanksgiving Eve deal that brought shortstop Jean Segura and outfielder Mitch Haniger to Seattle.
In 2012, the Jackson Generals, then the Mariners Double-A affiliate, boasted a rotation built around a Big Three that was thought to be the precursor of a Safeco Field dynasty. Now Hultzen is gone, and so is Walker. The Big Three has been pared to one: a hard-throwing lefty empowered by a knockout secondary pitch, a recently acquired wedding ring, and the suspicion he’s only just begun.
“This is my season to take off,” said Paxton. “I’m ready to be who I can be, and what I think I can be.”
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath