Is Mariners pitcher James Paxton this year's Michael Pineda?
Young left-hander James Paxton has been impressive early in Mariners camp. Paxton, drafted by the Mariners in 2010, has a great fastball-curve combo and is working on a changeup.
Seattle Times staff reporter
PEORIA, Ariz. — His pitching coach tried not to make direct comparisons between James Paxton and another young hurler who took spring training by storm a year ago.
It was Michael Pineda who rode an overpowering two-pitch repertoire — fastball and slider — to the majors last season after only a brief stint in Class AAA. So, when pitching coach Carl Willis looks at AA starter Paxton, 23, who, unlike Pineda, throws his devastating fastball-curve combo from the left side, it's tough not to wonder what comes next.
Especially when Paxton has been working on a third pitch, a changeup, since late last year. Not to mention that Paxton is slightly older than Pineda was, and has been driven by circumstances into situations that likely matured him beyond his years.
"He's a smart guy," Willis said Tuesday after watching a Paxton bullpen session. "The time that I've spent with him, he knows the game. He's got great presence out there, and you can see it by what he's able to do."
The Ladner, B.C., native has always had smarts and presence. He was an accounting major as well as a standout pitcher at the University of Kentucky, who'd thought of going for a Master's degree in finance had baseball not panned out.
That was before Paxton took on the school and the NCAA in a lawsuit that eventually led to his falling onto the Mariners' lap.
He'd been drafted in the first round by the Toronto Blue Jays in 2009, but turned down a $1 million bonus and returned to Kentucky for his senior season. That's where things got murky, with the NCAA supposedly seeking to interview Paxton about his relationship with agent Scott Boras — acting in an adviser capacity to the student-athlete — and probe whether Boras violated rules by directly contacting a member of the Blue Jays' front office on the pitcher's behalf.
University officials are said to have told Paxton he had to meet with NCAA investigators or face suspension for the 2010 season. Paxton refused.
A similar legal battle involving agent representation and a player's right to counsel had been settled out of court the prior year with Oklahoma State pitcher Andy Oliver receiving $750,000 from the NCAA. Paxton filed his lawsuit against the university, seeking an injunction to be allowed to play even if he refused to meet with investigators.
After lower-court rulings sided with the school, Paxton decided not to appeal and took a leave of absence from the university.
"It was a tough go there for a while," he said. "I had a really hard time. Especially leaving my teammates in college. That was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. I just felt like it was important for me to stand up for myself and for others who could be in my position someday."
With no place to play in 2010, Paxton trained at a facility operated by Boras in Aliso Viejo, Calif. He latched on with an independent-league team in Grand Prairie, Texas, and threw 17-2/3 innings for them — far fewer than he would have in college.
In the meantime, the Mariners, smelling a possible bargain, selected him in the fourth round that June — a three-round tumble for Paxton. They negotiated on a contract the rest of the year, with Paxton finally signing 11 months ago.
"I think the biggest thing that came out of the whole thing was that it just limited the number of innings that I got there for about a year and a half," Paxton said. "I felt like I was still progressing, working hard at the gym, throwing bullpen (sessions) and working on my stuff. I just didn't have the innings, but I still felt ready to go when I came to the Mariners."
Paxton blazed through Class A Midwest ball and then AA last season. He combined for a 2.37 earned-run average, 131 strikeouts and just 43 walks over 95 innings before the Mariners shut him down to safeguard his arm.
He'd begun working on a changeup midway through the year.
"The fastball and the curveball are very impressive, but it's tough to start in the big leagues with two pitches," Willis said. "He's got two plus-pitches now, but that changeup's going to be very important for him."
Reminded that Pineda had only two pitches, Willis smiled and said the requisite stuff about not having seen Paxton often enough for any comparisons. But then he added, based on what he has seen, Paxton has an uncanny ability to repeat his delivery with ease.
"As good as Michael Pineda was, I've seen two bullpens this year with Paxton and I'm very impressed with his ability to repeat," Willis said. "Especially a guy with his height (6 feet 4). So I think he's got a real good body awareness. Not to say that Michael didn't. But this guy, he really repeats his delivery, and that's a key. Because control and command come right off of that."
As does the ability to quickly make up for a lot of lost time.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org