What To Make Of Red Sox’s Reported Agreement With James Paxton

It all comes down to how he can recover from elbow issues

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The Red Sox, it appears, beat the collective bargaining agreement buzzer to add some more veteran starting pitching depth in a move that might not really pay dividends until farther down the road.

Boston reportedly agreed to a deal with free agent left-handed pitcher James Paxton early Wednesday morning. The deal, according to multiple reports, will pay Paxton $10 million in 2022 with a pair of team options that could keep him in Boston for the 2023 and 2024 seasons.

Those options are the key to the entire agreement, as the 33-year-old currently is working his way back from Tommy John surgery. The big southpaw logged just 1 1/3 innings for the Seattle Mariners in 2021 before being removed from his first start of the season and ultimately going under the knife. The absolute best-case scenario, of course, is it takes him 12 months to rehab and he’s back relatively early in the ’22 campaign. The more likely outcome, though, is a little later in the 12- to 18-month timeline, meaning he could be back for the second half of the season.

That alone might make news of this deal underwhelming for Red Sox fans who would like to see the club bolster its starting rotation, especially after Eduardo Rodriguez left for Detroit. That being said, this move feels like it was made more for 2023 and 2024, using this season as an audition of sorts for Paxton to prove he’s not only healthy but also can be as effective as he has been at his best.

If he’s healthy and the Red Sox somehow can channel what he did from 2017 through 2019, the best three-year run of his career, then he could end up being a bargain. Paxton went 38-17 over that span, posting a 3.54 ERA (119 ERA+, 3.26 FIP) while striking out 11 batters per nine innings. He throws hard, with a fastball consistently sitting at 95 mph — at least when he’s healthy. His average fastball velocity dipped considerably in 2020 as he battled elbow issues before ultimately needing the surgery.

Admittedly, the $10 million price tag is steep for what’s essentially a half-year tryout for a pitcher who has yet to log more than 161 innings in a single season. However, The Boston Globe reported Paxton’s deal could be worth up to $35 million over the course of three seasons if both options were exercised. If Paxton can be a mid-rotation starter over the course of two-plus seasons at the price the Sox essentially paid for Garrett Richards, then it has the potential to be quite beneficial.

This sort of move also will look a lot better if and when the Red Sox make additional moves to reinforce the starting rotation. Signing Michael Wacha and receiving a half-season from Paxton off major elbow surgery alone almost certainly isn’t enough to adequately address the situation. The two of them alone might not be able to replace Rodriguez’s 157 innings. More needs to be done, and it will be fascinating to see if the trade markets intensify once a new CBA is finally agreed upon — whenever that may be.

There are plenty of “ifs” in this situation as is the case with a 33-year-old coming back from major elbow surgery, so the Red Sox assume a certain amount of risk by making this move. It’s the sort of risk a big-market team like Boston can afford to make. It’s a pricey bet but one with fairly good odds, although it should be one of a handful of attempts to improve and retool the pitching staff.

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