Last year’s sprint wasn’t kind to anyone who got off-kilter with the start-and-stop offseason, or busted slowly out of the gates when play began. It wasn't kind to evaluators, either, who are trying to piece together a myriad of narratives, injury returns and small sample sizes to guess who will thrive in 2021.
But someone has to take a shot. MLB.com brought together five of its reporters to draft 10 established pitchers (five from each league) who are most likely to shake off 2020 and bounce back with the kind of seasons we came to expect.
Here are the selections:
James Paxton-- LHP, Mariners
Key number: 28.9% strikeout rate in 2020
Yes, that James Paxton -- the lefty who’s had a tough history of staying on the field, to be generous. There’s hardly any part of Paxton’s left side that hasn’t caused him to miss time, and that continued in 2020, when he returned from back surgery only to see elbow issues limit him to five starts and a 6.64 ERA.
Here’s the thing, though: Paxton wasn’t good last year, but he also wasn’t 6.64 ERA bad. The Big Maple maintained similar strikeout and walk rates from his better years, even with a diminished left arm, explaining his much more respectable 4.12 Statcast expected ERA (based on quality of contact, punchouts and free passes). Last year’s lack of juice on his fastball is a concern, but then he was reportedly hitting 94 mph at his open bullpen session in November, apparently making Jerry Dipoto’s staff think that Paxton had priced himself out of the Mariners’ market (lefty Matthew Boyd, Paxton’s workout buddy, was effusive about how much Paxton’s ball was popping).
Call me an optimist, but I think Seattle got a bargain. Paxton might hit the injury list at some point, but I believe he’ll pitch well enough to make that worth it. The Mariners’ commitment to a six-man rotation can help, too.