NEW YORK — The New York Yankees failed to upgrade their starting rotation at the trade deadline, striking out on all their potential targets.
Yet James Paxton can save GM Brian Cashman and Co. if he steps up and pitches like the No. 1 starter he was acquired to be down the stretch — and into the postseason. The pressure is officially on — and it will only rise from here.
To date, Big Maple has largely disappointed during his first year in The Big Apple.
Paxton looked like his dominant self while striking out 12 in back-to-back scoreless outings in mid-April.
But since missing nearly a month due to knee inflammation, the 30-year-old lefty has posted a 5.88 ERA and allowed 14 homers and a .961 OPS against in 11 starts. Rocky first innings have continually plagued him, as has an inconsistent command of his fastball he feels is starting to come around again. In his last two starts, he’s allowed 14 runs combined.
“I haven’t pitched very well here at all, and I’ll be the first one to tell you that I haven’t been very good,” Paxton told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday. “But I’m working on getting back to where I feel like I can be.”
On a day when the Houston Astros landed another ace (Zack Greinke) to go along with Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole — a pair of difference-makers the Yankees were in on but unable to land in 2017 and 2018 — the Bombers came away with only a minor-league pitcher.
And those lingering questions about their porous rotation aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Masahiro Tanaka (4.78 ERA) got battered in Boston last weekend, and has struggled to grip his splitter. But Tanaka has shown an ability to step up in October in-spite of his regular-season failings, so at least there’s that.
Meanwhile, in what sounds like an encouraging development, Luis Severino could get on a mound soon. But Severino has yet to pitch this season due to a lat injury that the Yankees admittedly mishandled, leaving everyone to wonder exactly what his role will be if/when he returns.
So that leaves surprising standout Domingo German (13-2 but no playoff experience), underachieving veteran J.A. Happ (5.19 ERA in the first year of a two-year, $34 million contract) and near retiree CC Sabathia (still two weeks away from returning due to his latest knee injury), along with the possibility that highly touted prospect Deivi Garcia (a future No. 3-4 in the eyes of some scouts) gets promoted and makes an impact in September.
Not exactly a group that inspires a lot of confidence.
Sure, Chad Green could help as an opener, and their bullpen is full of power arms — though Aroldis Chapman’s recent struggles are a bit alarming even with the return of Dellin Betances seemingly on the horizon — but their relievers are going to get burnt out if their starters can’t give them length every now and again.
Paxton has gone past the sixth inning in just one of his 18 starts — his best outing of the year on July 16 against the Red Sox (8 IP, 0 R, 12 K). Still, he maintains his knee is healthy now, and he can be the Game 1 starter the Yankees need him to be.
“I think I’m capable. I think I have that type of talent,” Paxton told Yahoo Sports. “Have I shown that yet? Absolutely not, other than maybe one game. But I’m continuously striving for that and putting everything I have into it. It’s not like I’m over here not trying, not giving it everything I have. It’s a hard game, and I’m putting everything I can into getting to where I want to be and where the Yankees and the fans want me to be.”
Paxton’s transition from Seattle to New York hasn’t been as smooth as both he and the team hoped.
“It’s been interesting. It’s been a lot to learn. It’s been my first time being traded and pitching somewhere else, and having that be New York comes with it’s own challenges,” Paxton said. “It’s been great. I think it’s going to help me grow and become a better pitcher for it. I think there’s been some growing pains for me coming over here. But I’m hoping that I can take these lessons and be a better pitcher in the end. And I feel like I’m getting close to that point. I’m in a really good place mentally on the mound, and moving forward I think it should help me.”
Asked to provide specifics in terms of challenges and growing pains, Paxton replied: “Dealing with all the eyes. There’s 40 of you guys (reporters) in here. In Seattle, there’s four. So I mean it’s a lot more of people just watching your every move. And people care more here. So it’s been a different experience, and I think I’m learning to deal with that.”
The Yankees are hopeful that Paxton can do what Sonny Gray couldn’t — succeed in this city. It’s been a decade since they won the World Series. And until that changes, they’re going to continue to hear how they’ve been unable to land that top-of-the-rotation starter that puts them over the top.
“I think we’re good enough to win a World Series with what we have in-house,” said Zack Britton, whose Baltimore Orioles swept the Max Scherzer-David Price-Verlander-led Detroit Tigers in the 2014 ALDS. “I played against the Yankees my whole career. This is by far the best team I’ve seen them put together since I’ve been in the big leagues.”
Well, they’re going to have to prove it.
And James Paxton has a lot to prove himself.
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