PEORIA, Ariz. — Two years ago, James Paxton didn’t know where to go and didn’t know anyone well enough to ask. Signed a few weeks into spring training after being picked almost nine months earlier in the 2010 draft, Paxton was invited to big league camp.
It was a humbling and short-lived experience. He wandered through the Mariners’ clubhouse just hoping to fit in with the rest of the guys. But he couldn’t help feeling like an interloper in this new world of grown men.
Fast forward to this spring, and Paxton isn’t just trying to fit in, he’s trying to get in – to the Mariners’ starting rotation.
He has grown into one of the top four pitching prospects in the organization, and has an outside chance of nailing down one of two spots that are likely available.
When asked about the wide-
eyed, unsure kid who would often sit quietly at his locker while the rest of the clubhouse swirled with noise and conversation, Paxton kind of chuckled.
“When I first signed, I was pretty nervous, I didn’t know anybody,” he said. “I definitely wasn’t comfortable in my shoes.”
But now, Paxton moves through the clubhouse with ease. He laughs. He teases. He has a presence.
“I’ve grown up as a player and a pitcher,” he said. “It’s made all the difference.”
That difference might be enough to get him into the rotation. Paxton has the talent. The 6-foot-4 left-hander has a fastball that can reach 97 mph and a knee-buckling overhand curveball. All he needs is a little more command and some success with his change-up and he could be right in the mix.
“My goal is to make this team,” he said. “That has to be your goal if you are here.”
There were hints of Paxton’s potential Friday, and signs of his inexperience in his first Cactus League start.
Paxton pitched two innings, allowing three runs on two hits. He walked two batters – both scored – and gave up a two-run homer to Mitch Moreland.
“Obviously, it was not ideal,” Paxton said. “I feel like I’m learning. I fell behind in some counts and had to work back with fastballs. And that doesn’t work too well at this level. I’d like to have better results next time.”
Paxton has made a conscious effort to throw his change-up this spring. He needs that third pitch to compliment his other two plus-level pitches.
“It’s been working pretty well for me so far,” he said. “I threw some good ones today.”
After tinkering with different grips for his change-up the past few years, Paxton has settled on the “circle” – his index finger tucked against his thumb, forming a circle and the remaining three fingers used to generate movement on the pitch.
When he executes it right, the pitch breaks down and away from right-handed hitters.
“Just having that change-up will take guys off my fastball,” he said. “Guys start to cheat on my fastball, and when I see that I can use that change-up.”
What will also help Paxton this season is being healthy. He battled a painful case of tendinitis in right knee early in the season. It ached with every pitch as the full force of his 220-pound frame would come down on the knee in his delivery.
“Pitching with that soreness made things a little tough,” he said. “It affected me as far not being able to finish (his delivery) consistently. I was always trying to find a comfortable place to finish.”
Paxton went on the disabled list for five weeks (May 26-July 2) to rest and rehabilitate his knee.
He came back a different pitcher, posting a 6-1 record with a 2.40 earned-run average in his next 11 starts. He finished the season at 9-4 and 3.05 ERA and struck out 110 batters in 106 innings.
“Last season, I felt like it was good overall,” Paxton said. “Once I went on the DL and then came back healthy, I thought I pitched really well.”
Paxton worked in the offseason and so far this spring in an effort to keep the knee issue from returning.
“It’s gotten better,” he said. “We are doing preventative stuff to keep it healthy.”
It leaves him vying for those final rotation spots with three of his closest friends – Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and Brandon Maurer. The four of them are often found congregating by their lockers in the morning. They all want one of those two spots, but they also want the others to be successful.
“We are all friends, and we want to see each other do well,” Paxton said. “It’s a friendly competitive thing. We are all pushing each other to get better. It’s a really good dynamic.”
SPRING TRAINING RECAP
MARINERS 8, RANGERS 6 (at Peoria Stadium)
The facts: The Mariners won their seventh consecutive Cactus League game, thanks to four homers. Pitching prospects James Paxton and Brandon Maurer each pitched two innings against a pretty solid Rangers lineup. Neither was spectacular. In two innings, Paxton gave up three runs on two hits, including a two-run homer to Mitch Moreland. Maurer pitched two innings, giving up two runs, walking two and striking out two.
Play of the game: Carlos Peguero isn’t known for his defense but the big outfielder made two nice catches. His first was the biggest. In the top of fourth, Texas loaded the bases against Maurer with two outs and dangerous Ian Kinsler at the plate. On a 2-1 count, Maurer surprised Kinsler with slider and got a soft liner to left. Despite a bad jump, Peguero made a nice sliding catch to end the inning.
Who was hot: The Mariners’ offense remains hot. In the seven-game win streak, Seattle has scored 48 runs and banged out 81 hits. The team has also blasted 18 home runs this spring, which leads all teams. On Friday, Peguero (solo homer), Jason Bay (two-run), Michael Saunders (solo) and Michael Morse (two-run) all went deep. Of Peguero’s six hits, three are home runs. Bay and Saunders each have two homers this spring.
Who was not: Reliever Jhonny Nunez continues to struggle with command. In his one inning, he gave up two runs on one hit and two walks. He has made two appearances and given up four earned runs. Top catching prospect Mike Zunino went 0-for-2 – grounding out and lining out – and is 0-for-7 with a walk and hit by pitch this spring.
Quotable: “I don’t think it’s by accident. I think guys have put the time in. But I think it’s a little foolish to think it’s going to happen every game. But we will take them while we can get them right now.” – Mariners outfielder Bay about the team’s early home runs.
Extra innings: Dustin Ackley went 2-for-3 on the day. Ackley, who is working on some swing changes, lined out hard to center field in his first at-bat. His next two at-bats were hard ground balls up the middle for hits. ... Catcher Kelly Shoppach threw out the speedy Elvis Andrus at second on a stolen base attempt. ... The last time the Mariners won seven consecutive spring training games was in 1998.
On tap: Hisashi Iwakuma will make his second start of the spring against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Also scheduled to pitch for Seattle are Jeremy Bonderman, Oliver Perez, Kameron Loe and Charlie Furbush. The Dodgers will start Chris Capuano with Chad Billingsley, ex-Mariner Brandon League and Kenley Jansen among those also scheduled to pitch. The 12:05 p.m. game will be broadcast on 710-AM.firstname.lastname@example.org 253-597-8483 blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @RyanDivish ryan.divish@ thenewstribune.com