Seattle Mariners

Mariners trade James Paxton to Yankees, acquire top-ranked prospect

The Mariners have traded James Paxton to the New York Yankees.

Yes, their 30-year-old ace, the lefty from Ladner, British Columbia, is now a Yankee — a transition so many Mariners have made before him.

The Mariners announced the move Monday afternoon after initial reports, saying they acquired the Yankees’ top prospect, left-hander Justus Sheffield, as well as right-hander Erik Swanson and outfielder Dom Thompson-Williams.

But why trade Paxton?

Dipoto said they had been working on a Paxton trade for more than a month and drew interest from most of the league during the general manager meetings two weeks ago.

“Clearly we’ve opted that 2019 be a year that we take a step back on to take two steps forward,” Dipoto said.

So if trading Mike Zunino didn’t signal, already, that the Mariners have stepped off the gas to rebuild, Paxton’s deal without certain does.

Dipoto laid out that now it’s about building for 2020 and 2021.

This is now about acquiring younger, more controllable talent to do what Dipoto says is compete for a World Series down the road instead of hunt for that all-elusive second wild card spot in a stacked top of the American League and end the longest active playoff drought in any of the major American professional sports.

It’s about admitting their all-out to get there these past three years isn’t working, despite how close they’ve come. And now it’s time to refill the reservoir of what’s the worst-ranked farm system in baseball, even if it means trading Paxton, who has two years remaining of club control before he can become a free agent. He is estimated to make $9 million after arbitration in 2019.

Monday’s deal came 10 days after the Mariners traded Zunino and outfielder Guillermo Heredia to the Rays as part of a five-player deal that brought in 25-year-old outfielder Mallex Smith.

This leaves Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager and Felix Hernandez as the only players remaining on the 40-man roster that Dipoto inherited when he was hired following the 2015 season.

Paxton went 11-6 with a 3.76 ERA in a career-high 28 starts and career-most 160 1/3 innings, though he had two stints on the disabled list with a sore back and then pnuemonia.

He tossed his first career no-hitter and the sixth in Mariners’ history against the Blue Jays on May 8, and did so on his native Canadian soil, no less. He’s just the second Canadian pitcher to toss a no-hitter in MLB history, and it followed his dazzling 16-strikeout performance against the Athletics in his previous start.

Among pitchers who tossed at least 160 innings, Paxton was fourth in strikeouts-per-nine-innings at 11.68, just behind Gerrit Cole (12.4), Max Scherzer (12.2) and Justin Verlander (12.2).

“He’s an awesome pitcher, and I think that’s part of the reason why we got such an appealing package,” Dipoto said on 710-ESPN. “He’s a true class act, one of my favorite people that I’ve met since I came here to the Mariners.

“He’s got Cy Young stuff and I suspect that when the year come and he makes 32 starts he can be that guy. Right now, I feel this more lines up with our organizational directive and I think he understood that.

“And I told him not to forget about us in a couple years when his time as a free agent rolls around because my hope is that at that point we are on the verge of competing for a World Series and James Paxton Part 2 is possible.”

So who is Justus Sheffield?

He’s a 22-year-old former first-round draft pick from Tennessee and made his major league debut for the Yankees this past season. In 116 innings in the minor leagues between Double-A and Triple-A in 2018, Sheffield wetn 7-6 with a 2.48 ERA and 123 strikeouts in 20 starts.

“Never been to Seattle,” Sheffield said. “I”m looking forward to it. I heard I need to bring my raincoat. I’ll go shopping tomorrow for one.”

Baseball America has Sheffield ranked as the No. 1 prospect in the Yankees organization, but thoughts on him seemed to range from a major-league ready No. 3 starter to maybe more destined for the bullpen. The Mariners, obviously, believe in him.

Dipoto said they see both Sheffield and Swanson competing for spots in their starting rotation in spring training, and he said both will be in the big leagues before the summer.

“We got someone we think is close to or is a major-league ready left-handed starter with the potential for big impact,” Dipoto said. “We see Justus as an upper rotation pitcher who can take the ball every fifth day against the best teams in the league. Clearly he has some things he needs to work on and adjustments that will inevitably come at the major-league level, but the chance for a real impact pitcher is very real with Justus Sheffield.”

Swanson, 25, split last season between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, going 8-2 with a 2.58 ERA in 20 starts. And Thompson-Williams, 23, is a High-A prospect who hit .290 with 17 home runs and 17 stolen bases in 90 games.

But the Mariners certainly have more moves to come.

“The roster still has so much more room to grow,” Dipoto said. “While we are getting younger and more exciting, we do intend to put the best team we can on the field for 2019, without losing sight of our goals, which are more in line to compete for a World Series by as early as 2021.

“I can’t tell you how it will shake down or what the timing is, but we are out there looking for talent like we just acquired today.”

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TJ Cotterill is the Seattle Mariners and MLB writer for The News Tribune. He started covering MLB full-time in 2018, but before that covered Ken Griffey Jr.’s Hall of Fame induction in Cooperstown, the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay and spent seven years writing about high schools, including four as TNT’s prep sports coordinator. Born and raised in Washington.