In the 82nd trade he has made since taking over as Mariners general manager in September 2015, following the firing of the generally hopeless Jack Zduriencik, Dipoto gave a clear signal of his offseason plan this time around, as team ace and well-liked James Paxton heads to the Yankees to bolster a rotation which New York hopes will lead them to their 28th ring. The Mariners, one of only two Major League franchises never to feature in the Fall Classic of course, receive top prospect LHP Justus Sheffield, RHP Erik Swanson and OF Don Thompson-Williams in return.
The story, which first broke on the evening of November 19th, instantly divided opinion. Many took to Twitter (the host of any reasonable, good-natured debate…) to bemoan Dipoto for daring to move on his star pitcher, and criticise what he had managed to obtain in return. ‘How can we trade away players in their prime and keep those in decline’ was the cry of many, as they shout for a GM who can persuade the top franchises in baseball to trade their best prospects in return for players on loaded contracts deemed not good enough by a franchise which hasn’t even been to the postseason since 2001.
Put simply, this is a trade that had to happen. Such is the poor state of the Mariners’ farm system that Sheffield, Swanson and Thompson-Williams have been installed at numbers 1, 9 and 14 respectively in terms of the top prospects in the organisation immediately. They have multi-year control, age on their side and a seemingly high ceiling of development. In contrast, Paxton was one of very few assets which the Mariners knew could theoretically generate a high return, despite only having two years of arbitration left before free agency, and an injury-prone track record that has seen him throw 121, 136 and 160.1 innings respectively over the last 3 years.
Another reason behind the discontent of Mariners fans was presumably down to the numerous stories which broke following the announcement of the trade which talked down Justus Sheffield’s potential to become a big-league starter. Scouts were reported to be surprised the Mariners had given up Paxton for what they had got in return, and that Sheffield projected to be a number 3 starter at best, and moved to the bullpen if things didn’t work out.
Yet, this can be looked at two ways. First of all, just last summer the Yankees clearly did not want to move Sheffield. They are in win-now mode and, with the pressure having been applied by their bitter rivals from Fenway this season, they had to look to improve in order to enhance their chances of securing another World Series title. It is no surprise, given they have had to give up one of their prospects, that they are now talking him down: let’s face it, like it or not the Yankees are the most powerful, most supported and most famous baseball team around the world. They are not going to put it out in the public domain that Justus Sheffield projects to be a world-beater of the future just after they have traded him away.
Secondly, for all he has been fantastic at times for Seattle, Paxton has consistently visited the disabled list, had an ERA of 3.76 last year in his most productive year yet (in terms of IP) for the franchise, and is not surrounded by a rotation, or indeed a roster, good enough to sustain a playoff push. The Mariners were flattered by their end of season record of 89-73 last year, and they are not just a couple of moves away from being there at the end of the season. They need to be creative and reshape their roster, which may be a truth no fan who has suffered through the soon-to-be 18 year-long playoff drought wants to hear, but it remains a truth nonetheless. Paxton would not have been a part of a future in this team where they would have been World Series contenders, or even significant postseason players. Justus Sheffield, along with Erik Swanson and Don Thompson-Williams, at least have a chance to do exactly that.
The remit of Jerry Dipoto is not to rip up and start again, because with the core of players who are basically untradeable given the size of their contracts, that just isn’t possible. His remit is to reshape his roster and fill it with young, controllable players who may not make an immediate impact, but have the talent and potential to be able to contribute over many years for the franchise. This trade ticks all of these boxes.
Thanks and farewell, James Paxton. You gave us the no-hitter, battled an eagle before a game and made life hell for just a few hours at a time for fans of the Houston Astros whenever you took the field against them. For that we thank you, and wish you all the best, but it was the right time to say goodbye.