Anthony McCarron, SNY.tv | Twitter |
James Paxton probably proved last April there's at least some innate grace-under-pressure coursing through his veins. That's when he deftly handled that bald eagle landing on his back during a pre-game ceremony in Minnesota.
Some of us would've had a full freak-out, complete with running, screaming and a mitt and cap flopping to the ground. But Paxton was better than that. Way better. You've seen the viral video. Big Maple has Big Calm.
Does that mean he's a lock to handle the Bronx fishbowl this season, his first as a member of the Yankees? No, but that, plus his undeniable talent, at least makes you want to see him work during the pomp of Opening Day at Yankee Stadium, the kickoff to this season laden with outsized expectations.
Now that Luis Severino, who had been a cinch to start the first game, is dealing with a shoulder issue, Paxton should be his replacement as the Yankees' Opening Day starter on March 28 against the visiting Baltimore Orioles.
Paxton is the Yankees' shiny new star, the pitcher that is supposed to help them push through the tilt-a-whirl that is the modern October. If the Yanks were willing to part with one of their top prospects, pitcher Justus Sheffield, and two others to get a lefty they viewed as a postseason difference-maker, he should have an Opening Day-type pedigree already.
It's time to show him off and at least gain some intel on whether "dealing with New York" is a bugaboo that will follow him his whole first season in pinstripes or an overheated narrative that he'll quickly spike. Pitching against the weak Orioles amid what's sure to be a big-deal scene could help Paxton gain comfort, too.
Since 2009, only three pitchers have gotten the Opening Day nod for the Yankees and they're all still on the roster - CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka and Severino. Sabathia is slowed in camp coming off knee surgery and a heart procedure, plus he must serve a five-game suspension at the start of the season. So he and Severino are out.
Tanaka, who started the opener each season from 2015-17, might have a claim and so might J.A. Happ, who returned on a two-year, $34-million contract after going 7-0 in 11 regular-season starts as a Yankee last year. And they're both very good pitchers, too.
But we're talking about the Yankees here and when they have a glossy new player, they've been known to showcase him. Sabathia's first Opening Day start as a Yankee came in 2009, his first season with the team. Randy Johnson started the opener in 2005, his first year as a Yankee; Roger Clemens opened the season in 1999 after that big trade with Toronto.
No one is saying that Paxton is their equal as pitchers. But he's the same kind of acquisition - talented hurler brought in to provide October gold.
Let's see what he's got right away.
Paxton, 30, is coming off a strong 2018, when he was 11-6 with a 3.76 ERA for the Seattle Mariners. He made a leap forward in workload, too, throwing a career-high 160.1 innings and making a career-best 28 starts, though he still has plenty to prove in terms of delivering high innings totals.
But the stuff is there, in part evidenced by his 208 strikeouts and just 42 walks. He had a nifty 1.098 WHIP and averaged 11.7 strikeouts per nine innings and just 2.4 walks per nine.
Paxton never got an Opening Day assignment in Seattle, where he spent the first six years of his big-league career. Felix Hernandez has owned that slot for years, starting 11 of the last 12 openers for the Mariners, including each of the last 10.
With Severino's injury, though, it's Paxton's turn now. There have been 55 pitchers who have made an Opening Day start for the Yankees franchise over the years.
Time for Paxton to be No. 56.