Waiting for pitching prospects to become complete pitchers is an exercise in frustration. We know all about the pitfalls that derail careers, but how do you watch a kid throw 95 mph and not imagine a happy ending, or at least a hopeful beginning?
In 2012, the Mariners organization was blessed with a trio of Double-A power pitchers whose potential suggested they’d share places in a big-league rotation destined for greatness. Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton were so talented they begged for a collective nickname with the zip of their fastballs.
Four years later, it’s obvious that too-good-to-be-true rotation was, well, too good to be true.
Hultzen appears to be a forgotten footnote of the 2011 draft class, victimized by the shoulder problems that have prevented the former No. 2 overall selection from throwing one pitch in a Seattle uniform. Walker remains a work in progress but has developed into a solid, occasionally stellar starter.
And then there’s Paxton, a mystery who embodies the phrase “if it’s not one thing, it’s another.” Fluke injuries? Check. Location issues? Check. Crisis-management problems on the mound? Check.
A starting spot was open for either Paxton or Nathan Karns during spring training, and Karns didn’t do much to earn it. Only Paxton did less, and he was sent to Tacoma for two months of pitching-mechanics school. Paxton both flourished and struggled — sometimes in the same game — but his stuff is electric, and lefties with extreme velocity are as rare as cerebral carnival barkers.
When Felix Hernandez went on the disabled list because he’d strained a calf muscle while celebrating a teammate’s home run (what’s that about?), promoting Paxton for an injury-replacement start Wednesday at San Diego was an easy decision.
Not so easy was solving the quandary about putting the ball in his hand for another start. Paxton was given a 3-0 lead in the top of the first inning, and in the time required to heat a cup of coffee in the microwave, the 3-0 lead was a 6-3 deficit.
“I was just too amped up and too fired up for it,” Paxton explained afterward.
If it’s not one thing, it’s another.
As I watched a lineup of feeble hitters take turns blasting Paxton, a gut hunch told me his days with the Mariners were done. Except there’s this: His typical fastball was clocked at 96.6 mph. The fastball tended to arrive center-cut and hitter friendly, but still …
Lefties who throw that hard are too intriguing to be dismissed by a gut hunch.
Paxton is 27 — he turns 28 in November — and the meter on his career is ticking. It’s fair to wonder if he’s reached that age when a general manager concludes that the project isn’t working.
Trading Paxton could be justified as a move that will provide the enigmatic pitcher with a change of scenery. A fresh start with another organization wasn’t entirely responsible for Jake Arrieta’s transition from Orioles minor-league journeyman to Cy Young Award recipient with the Cubs, but it’s prominent in the conversation.
On the other hand, there’s a history of late-blooming pitchers who figured things out. The Mariners would be wise to recognize that history, if for no other reason than two famously accomplished late-bloomers figured things out in Seattle.
When Jamie Moyer was Paxton’s age — 27 years and seven months — he had a 32-45 record and a label as a back-of-the-rotation starter on his best days. He retired as a 269-game winner who finished among the top six in the Cy Young vote three times.
Aside from the fact they were born to deliver baseballs with their hand, the soft-tossing Moyer and hard-throwing Paxton have little in common. But whatever it was that liberated Moyer from modestly accomplished mediocrity approaching his 30th birthday to staff ace — dedication, perseverance, an abundance of self-confidence — is attainable for Paxton, too.
Randy Johnson provides another example of a late bloomer who discovered himself in Seattle. Johnson was plagued by control problems related to his 6-foot-10 height. His arms were long and his legs were long, and finding a harmonic convergence between the windup and the follow-through proved difficult. At 27, he led the AL with 152 walks. His fearsome fastball was all over the place.
Then Johnson got some advice from Nolan Ryan and Rangers pitching coach Tom House. They told him to land on the ball of his right foot when throwing the ball, instead of the heel, and Johnson transformed from a wild-thing curiosity at 27 into a Cy Young winner at 31.
I doubt Paxton will benefit from similar advice offered by outsiders, and I can guarantee you that if he does, it won’t come from Texas. The Mariners are on their own here. They’ve got a lefty with a lights-out fastball, and yet a fastball that gave the Padres the sense they were taking batting practice Wednesday night.
What concerns me about Paxton is that he’s 27 and sometimes seems to pitch without a clue. What excites me about Paxton is that’s he’s 27, ready — and very able — to turn the corner.
“There comes a time when you have the opportunity to step up,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said Thursday, referring to his decision to give Paxton another start. “You get a chance to make an impact on the team. Sometimes, you have to put a little chip on your shoulder and say, ‘This is my time.’
“This is James Paxton’s time.”
The meter is ticking.