Starting pitcher James Paxton appears close to returning to the Seattle Mariners rotation after missing nearly four months with a strained lat muscle.
Nothing official has been announced by the team yet, but Paxton is traveling with the Mariners on their current road trip and will throw a bullpen this week, per Greg Johns of MLB.com. Johns points out he could potentially start as early as Saturday against the Baltimore Orioles.
Although the Mariners lead the majors in ERA, Paxton’s successful return could be the most important factor for the team over the final two months of the season.
It’s no secret that the Mariners need offense much more than pitching, but there simply isn’t much out there. Kendrys Morales will likely be a slight upgrade at DH, and Seattle might be able to grab an outfielder like Alex Rios before the deadline, but the Mariners are not going to be able to address every offensive need via the trade market.
If the Mariners can’t improve their offensive production enough, the next best thing for them is to improve their run prevention. With depth about to get short at the back of the rotation, Paxton may be the only pitcher in the organization who will be able to do that.
Paxton has too small of a sample size in the major leagues to make any conclusive statements, but he has pitched well so far in Seattle. Through five career starts, Paxton has allowed seven earned runs in 36 innings while posting a strikeout rate of 24.8 percent and walk rate of 6.6 percent.
While Paxton has always been rated behind Taijuan Walker in terms of upside, he looked absolutely dominant April 2 against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
If Paxton can pitch anywhere close to that level in August and September, the Mariners will have an outstanding top three in their rotation for the final stretch. If Chris Young can continue to defy regression, they will have a strong top four.
Seattle’s expected Opening Day rotation has not all been healthy at one point this season, and the Mariners have not been able to find a reliable No. 5 starter as a result.
Brandon Maurer has had much more success as a reliever than as a starter, Erasmo Ramirez has a walk rate of 11.6 percent and Taijuan Walker is still learning to pitch in the major leagues at just 21 years old.
In the No. 4 spot, Roenis Elias has stabilized himself in his last two starts after a rough month, but he is only 25 innings short of his professional career high. Elias will likely be in the bullpen by September, if he’s pitching at all.
Paxton must be effective in filling one of those two spots. If he suffers another setback or pitches poorly, the Mariners are looking at starting two of Ramirez, Walker or Blake Beavan in the rotation for the rest of the year.
With the Mariners' current offense, that isn’t going to work out well. The other option would be to pay the high price in prospects for one of the few available pitchers like Bartolo Colon at the deadline, but any potential trade is likely to be for a bat.
The Mariners know a lat problem can be difficult, as Stephen Pryor (now with the Minnesota Twins) was initially diagnosed with a similar injury and still doesn’t look like the same pitcher over a year later. Paxton himself suffered a scary setback in May.
However, the team is going to be incredibly careful with Paxton and must feel confident in his health if he is traveling with the team and throwing his scheduled bullpen.
Most importantly, Paxton felt good during his latest rehab start, via Ryan Divish of The Seattle Times.
I felt good. No pain at all. I feel like it’s getting closer. I’m still missing down with my fastball. The breaking stuff felt really good, curveball and cutter felt really good. My change-up was good. It’s just finding the release point with my fastball. But I feel like I took a good step forward today. ... It’s better to miss there than up. I feel like it’s a small adjustment and I will be able to get my fastball where I want it.
Paxton was a bit shaky with his command Sunday, walking three batters in 4.1 innings. It wouldn’t get any easier if he were to pitch against the Orioles on the road in his return, but the Mariners have little choice but to start him if they feel he is healthy enough.
A healthy Paxton would be a huge boost to a sliding Seattle ballclub. Paxton will be one of the most important players to the Mariners over the rest of the season, if not the most critical piece.