Paxton's Velocity Comes Back Strong
Recovery from knee injury also improves command
PEORIA, Ariz.—The 2012 regular season consisted of two very different halves for Mariners pitching prospect James Paxton, now a member of the Arizona Fall League's Peoria Javelinas. Bothered by knee tendinitis early in the season, the Canadian lefthander struggled with his command and averaged 6.2 walks per nine innings. He was a very different pitcher when he returned from six weeks on the disabled list, cutting the walk rate to 3.3 walks per nine innings and finishing the Double-A Southern League season with a 9-4, 3.05 overall line with 110 strikeouts in 106 innings.
Paxton's strong second half included a pair of stellar starts for Jackson in the playoffs, where he didn't give up an earned run and struck out 19 in two starts, covering 13.1 innings.
"(The knee problem) kind of messed with the consistency of my finish," Paxton said. "Once I went on the DL and got on a program and worked on it and strengthened it up a lot, when I came off I felt really good. I felt a lot more consistent and I feel I just got better as the season went on."
Paxton was part of a star-studded pitching staff at Jackson that included fellow starters Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and Brandon Maurer, plus flamethrowing relievers Stephen Pryor and Carter Capps, both of whom finished the season in the big leagues.
"It was great pitching with those guys," Paxton said. "We felt every day we were going to go out and win a baseball game because of the talent we had. We knew if we got to the seventh inning and had a lead, it was pretty much game over."
Paxton, a 6-foot-4, 220-pounder, began his AFL season with two quality starts, giving up only one run in six innings, before he struggled with command of the fastball in his latest outing. He was knocked around for four runs before departing in the second inning of Saturday's game against the Phoenix Desert Dogs.
Command of his two- and four-seam fastballs, which he's been throwing in the 92-96 range this fall, is just one of the goals for Paxton. He's also been working on a changeup, which he called his "big project pitch" this season, and is encouraged that he's getting more swings and misses on the pitch.
Paxton's personal goals align with what the Mariners organization have in mind for the 23-year-old.
"We want him to pitch," said Javelina pitching coach Lance Painter, who had Paxton in Double-A the last two seasons, "but we also want him to work on commanding the fastball and working on his changeup. He has a plus curveball and his fastball has good plane on it and plus velocity. But we want him to face better hitters and really just use all of his pitches."
The extra work he's getting in Arizona is important for Paxton, who missed nearly two years of game action after initially being drafted by the Blue Jays in the supplemental first round in 2009. He didn't sign with Toronto, but didn't pitch as a senior at Kentucky after a Toronto newspaper reported the Jays had negotiated with his agent, the Scott Boras Corporation, effectively ending his college eligibility. The Mariners drafted him in the fourth round in 2010 after he played in the independent American Association, but Paxton didn't sign until just before spring training in 2011.
"It definitely tested me," Paxton said about the ordeal he went through in attempting to start his pro career. "It was a tough situation and I'm really happy with where I am now. I think I learned a lot about baseball as a business."
Paxton's delivery, with a long arm action in the back, raises a flag for some Fall League observers. One veteran scout, while liking the size and arm strength, said about Paxton, "I am concerned about the arm action, both the angle of it and the length. I don't think they lead to command, nor do I think that the arm action will allow him to learn an additional pitch, make adjustments, or command his fastball to both sides of the plate." The scout went on to say that Paxton's future may be as a lefty set-up man out of the bullpen.
Painter has watched Paxton since he signed with the Mariners and has seen him make adjustments in his delivery when necessary.
"He's got a lot of length in his arms and he's a tall kid," Painter said. "Occasionally he'll get stuck, but for the most part he does repeat his delivery well. When you repeat your delivery, you know what your pitches are going to do . . . He's really taken off with what we've done and he's definitely a very good prospect in the future."
An added advantage of Paxton's AFL time is getting to work with Javelina catcher Mike Zunino, the College Player of the Year and the Mariners' 2012 first-round pick. Zunino finished the year with Jackson after signing for a $4 million bonus.
"We've been working together for a couple of months and he's caught me quite a bit," Paxton said about Zunino. "We're starting to get to know each other pretty well. We've had quite a few chats about how I like to pitch, our game plan and that type of thing. We're getting a lot more comfortable with each other."
Paxton will report to big league camp in February with the expectation that he'll move to Triple-A to start the season. But he hopes to get one more baseball experience under his belt before then. The British Columbia native should be a candidate for Canada's World Baseball Classic team that qualified this fall for the 16-team tournament, with the first round being held in the Phoenix area.
"Hopefully, at some point I'll get to pitch for Team Canada," Paxton said. "It's always great to represent your country."
• Yordy Cabrera had quite a week to start his fall season. The Athletics placed the 22-year-old infielder on the Phoenix roster to replace Miles Head, who had suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the Desert Dogs' first game, and Cabrera homered in his first AFL at-bat on Tuesday night against the Rafters at Salt River Fields. The 2010 second-round draft pick took batting practice in his Athletics uniform Saturday morning, but by the end of the day was a member of the Marlins organization after being included in a three-team deal between Oakland, Arizona and Miami. Cabrera is expected to remain with the Desert Dogs, albeit in a different uniform, since the Marlins are also one of the five teams that contribute players to the Phoenix roster. He was off to a strong start in the AFL, going 3-for-9 with five RBIs in his first two games. Cabrera, 22, who missed more than half of the 2012 regular season with a hip injury, has a combined .230/.297/.351 batting line in his first three professional seasons.
• Javelinas reliever Kevin Quackenbush (Padres) continued his strong season with his first four AFL appearances, with a pair of saves and four scoreless innings with seven strikeouts. Hitters are 0-for-13 with two walks so far against Quackenbush, who went 3-2, 0.94 with 27 saves and 70 strikeouts at high Class A Lake Elsinore.