TAMPA, Fla. - For most of us, during this awful time, we have way too much time on our hands. For the Yankees, however, that extra time as MLB waits for the nation to come to grips with the global coronavirus pandemic to start the season, has given the big-name players on their already crowded injury list precious time to heal without missing games.
Among vague updates about Aaron Judge (still healing) and Giancarlo Stanton that Yankees manager Aaron Boone gave YES Network's Meredith Markowitz last week, he said that James Paxton was throwing off a mound.
"James Paxton is doing great, we feel really good about the decision to go ahead with the surgery," Boone said. "Every step of the way, it's gone pretty smoothly for him. I think he threw his fifth bullpen the other day. He continues to report that it's going really well. So we are really encouraged for Pax."
That Paxton was seemingly throwing off a mound by mid-April after February back surgery is encouraging. In the prime of his career with a fastball that sits at 97 miles an hour and a cutter set up nicely by his redefined knuckle-curve, Paxton would be an obvious candidate for the Yankees to try and extend a contract to, but his back surgery in February has certainly added a wrinkle to that.
"His durability is what worries me," one industry executive said. "He's got great stuff, he didn't seem at all phased by pitching on the big stage in New York or the playoffs.
"But a back injury is very worrisome," the scout continued, "and he's had a history of injuries throughout his career."
Paxton has been on the IL nine times in his six-plus seasons in the big leagues. It was the sixth time he had missed starts because of injuries in the last three seasons. He had been on the IL in 2019, missing three and a half weeks with a left knee injury. Over the past year, Paxton has been shut down with a left forearm strain, a left pectoral strain and lower back inflammation.
Paxton, who has never pitched more than 160.1 innings in a season, feels he has finally addressed the lower back issue that has plagued him over the years. On Feb. 5, he had surgery to remove a cyst on his spine, a condition that develops when there is a rupture of the spinal disks. Paxton admitted in March he had been pitching with pain in his lower back for some time.
The surgery had been the last resort option after months of trying to rest and rehab the back. Paxton had suffered the injury in his last scheduled regular season start. After pitching one ineffective inning in Texas, Paxton had what the Yankees said was a "glute" injury at the time.
Turns out he pitched with discomfort during the playoffs _ despite looking absolutely dominant in two starts against the Astros (two earned runs over 8.1 innings pitched).
The late surgery date, right before pitchers and catchers were expected in Tampa for spring training, put Paxton's walk season in jeopardy. The Yankees, who will have to sign starters to put around new ace Gerrit Cole, wanted to see if Paxton, who had an up-and-down debut season with them, could be consistent and healthy.
Paxton, who pitched a no-hitter for the Mariners in May 2018, flashed brilliance in the first part of the season, but had his moments of struggle. He went into August with a 4.72 ERA and was tinkering with his pitches, like most getting more comfortable with the lively 2019 ball.
In August, however, Paxton found something with his knuckle-curve ball and used it to absolutely dominate. As the usage on his curveball spiked, jumping from 12.6% in July to 24% in August and 31% in September, he won 10 consecutive starts. From Aug. 2 to Sept. 21, Paxton pitched to a 2.25 ERA. Opponents had a miserable .167 batting average against him in that span as he struck out 68 batters over just 60 innings pitched.
"He wasn't going to his fastball for strikes all the time, the curve became a big strikeout pitch for him," a National League scout advancing the Yankees last fall said. "He mixed it in well and hitters were having a really hard time with it."
With Paxton on schedule to be ready for mid-May, as he predicted, he has a chance to show the Yankees _ and certainly other teams who will be very interested _ that he can build on the second half of his 2019 season. It's a shortened look at a very talented pitcher, but with the Yankees also looking at losing Masahiro Tanaka and J.A. Happ to free agency after this season, but one the Yankees should consider carefully.