James Paxton appears to be the most big-league ready of Seattle's "Big Three" pitching prospects, but his biggest value could come on the trade market.
PEORIA, Ariz. — Most Seattle fans probably wouldn’t recognize some of the more intriguing people on hand recently to watch Mariners pitching prospect James Paxton dominate his opposition.
Glancing around the sparsely filled ballpark as Class AA left-hander Paxton opened the Arizona Fall League season, one could see Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge in a team suite. Mariners amateur scouting director Tom McNamara was sweltering in box seats behind home plate, furiously scribbling notes, while player development director Chris Gwynn sat with Seattle scouts and front-office assistants in a shaded area a few rows back.
But sprinkled in the seats around them, unremarkable to all but the most-seasoned baseball-watchers, was a plethora of scouts from the Kansas City Royals. They nodded their heads as Paxton struck out the side in the first inning, then fanned two more batters in a three-frame debut that saw him allow just a walk and a bloop single.
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The Royals are in need of pitching, while the Mariners could use one of the bats — Alex Gordon and Billy Butler, to name two — that Kansas City seems to have a surplus of. And so, as the pitcher who is perhaps the most big-league ready of any of Seattle’s so-called “Big Three” minor-leaguers goes about blowing away all comers, it isn’t just the Mariners taking notes.
“I finished real strong in the playoffs, and that was probably the best I pitched all year,” Paxton said of his injury-interrupted 2012 campaign for Class AA Jackson. He was 6-1 with a 2.40 earned-run average the second half. “I’m just looking to do that same thing here. Just build off what I was able to do last season.”
He followed up his AFL opener by striking out five more batters over another three innings in a 9-2 win by his Peoria Javelinas squad — made up of top prospects from the Mariners, Reds, Padres, Twins and Phillies. Paxton hasn’t been as sharp his past two outings, but has 14 strikeouts in 10-2/3 innings.
Paxton isn’t the only Mariner in the AFL bound to attract interest. The Mariners are paying close attention to AAA shortstop Nick Franklin, who has started more games at second base in the AFL than at his main position — continuing a trend from the end of the regular season.
Franklin developing into a second baseman rather than a shortstop could make him more expendable for the Mariners, as Dustin Ackley already mans the position and some feel Kyle Seager is better-suited there as well. Franklin’s bat was doing as expected, going 13 for 38 (.342) with two home runs, two doubles and a triple in his first 10 games — six at second base, two at shortstop and two at designated hitter.
Mariners GM Zduriencik said part of the reason Franklin is playing second so often is that each major-league team supplying the Peoria squad can designate one “priority player” at a specific position. In this case, another team’s priority player happens to be a shortstop and gets playing time there at Franklin’s expense.
But Zduriencik said he also would like to see Franklin play multiple positions.
Paxton’s case is somewhat different from Franklin’s, in that the pitcher might be determining a future trade simply by doing everything the Mariners expect. Teams often want prospects who are big-league ready in trades, and Paxton seems ahead of fellow “Big Three” members Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker, who began the year with Paxton in spring training with the Mariners before moving together to AA. Unlike former No. 2 overall pick Hultzen and second-rounder Walker, Paxton cost Seattle only a fourth-round pick (Toronto had drafted him as a first-rounder a year earlier but failed to sign him), which could make dealing him slightly easier to stomach.
Those watching Paxton in the AFL opener were impressed by the ease with which he overpowered hitters with a mid-90s fastball.
But Paxton also mixed in about a half-dozen changeups.
“My changeup’s been my big project pitch this year,” he said. “It’s gotten a lot better as the year’s gone on.”
That changeup could go a long way in determining how quickly Paxton reaches the majors, possibly as soon as next spring. He also deploys an “out-pitch” curveball that got tighter as the season went on, and he’s toying with a cut fastball as well.
But the changeup is something he needs to offset his above-average fastball.
Controlling that fastball will also be key. His lack of command set him back a bit, as did a sore knee that caused him to go on the disabled list for a month in May. But leg-strengthening exercises helped get him back on track in an unusual season where the second-year pro dealt with plenty of “Big Three” hype and scrutiny.
“It was an experience,” he said. “It was something I wasn’t really expecting, but it’s been a lot of fun. Especially being able to play with those guys, all of us together down at AA, and Brandon Mauer as well. We had a really good pitching staff. It was just a lot of fun to go through that together and try to figure it out and work our way through it.”
Mariners AA pitching coach Lance Painter, who is serving as pitching coach for the Peoria Fall League squad, said Paxton made huge second-half strides.
“In spring training, he wasn’t very close, and then in the first six weeks of the season he still didn’t have fastball command,” Painter said. “The last six to eight weeks, he really started commanding the baseball better. He wasn’t trying to be so fine and his fastball just has a little tail on it and he was allowing it to work for him. He was able to come inside better.”
Painter said he worked with Paxton to “hammer home” his changeup in the second half and learn when to throw it. That learning process is still ongoing in the AFL.
In the opener, Paxton threw an 0-1 changeup that got hit hard to center field for a line out. He later came off the mound and told Painter that he realized he caught too much of the strike zone.
“That’s something we’ve worked on him getting better at, where if you’re ahead in the count, you don’t want to throw a strike with that pitch,” Painter said. “You want it to look like a strike and let it come down below the zone and make him chase it.
“He’s also starting to understand when to throw his changeup, which is when he’s even or ahead in the count.”
Paxton feels he’s ready to take the next step. And doing that will require maintaining the consistency he finally found midsummer.
“The big thing is, I just have to go out there and pitch the best that I can every time,” he said.
If he does, he could be pitching in the big leagues sooner than his contemporaries. For the Mariners, or for somebody else.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @gbakermariners