clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why James Paxton is the perfect final piece to the Dodgers’ rotation puzzle

Los Angeles’ offseason spending spree continues with yet another addition to their starting rotation.

James Paxton of the Boston Red Sox pitches against the Kansas City Royals during the first inning at Kauffman Stadium on September 1, 2023 in Kansas City, Missouri. Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images

What, you thought that the Los Angeles Dodgers were done with their offseason just because they’d already spent north of a billion dollars? These are the Dodgers we’re talking about, and good enough is never good enough — especially given how their 2023 season went up in flames. So after landing Shohei Ohtani, and Yoshinobu Yamamoto, and Tyler Glasnow, and Teoscar Hernandez, it should come as no surprise that L.A. just kept on rolling, reportedly agreeing to a one-year deal with left-hander James Paxton late Monday night.

According to multiple reports, the deal comes with a base salary of $12 million and can climb higher if certain incentives are reached. Those incentives are likely tied to Paxton’s ability to stay healthy and take the ball every fifth day, as durability has been the main question mark throughout the 35-year-old’s career — 2023 included. Still, this is another shrewd signing for the Dodgers, and one that’s far more important than you might expect at first glance.

The understandable buzz around the additions of Yamamoto and Glasnow masked the fact that the Dodgers were more or less starting from square one with their starting rotation: With Julio Urias’ career in limbo after another assault allegation, Clayton Kershaw a free agent (and set to miss half the year after undergoing shoulder surgery) and Tony Gonsolin and Dustin May out while rehabbing procedures of their own, L.A. found itself down to a guy yet to return from Tommy John surgery (Walker Buehler) and an assortment of youngsters high on potential but low on actual innings (Bobby Miller, Emmet Sheehan, etc.). Even with Yamamoto and Glasnow in tow, there still weren’t enough innings that you could put in pen, especially given Glasnow’s injury history and Yamamoto accustomed to pitching every six days in Japan.

So Andrew Friedman and Co. rightfully felt one pitcher short — not a star, necessarily, but someone to occupy the old Alex Wood/Rich Hill role, a credible fifth starter on a short-term deal. And they got just about the best available version of that type in Paxton. He entered last season having thrown just 21.2 Major League innings since 2019, the product of a spinal issue that cost him most of 2020 followed by Tommy John surgery in April 2021. He latched on with the Red Sox in December of that year, and entered 2023 fully rehabbed and finally ready to return to Boston’s rotation ... until a hamstring issue in spring training delayed his debut until early May.

Once Paxton made it back, he quickly reminded everyone just how electric he can be: posted a 3.34 ERA across his first 16 starts, including AL Pitcher of the Month honors in June. His fastball was back up around 96-97, blowing past hitters up in the zone, and his slider was as sharp as ever.

Of course, this being James Paxton, you knew it couldn’t last. He began dealing with knee soreness as the summer went on, and eventually the injury started to take its toll: With Boston hoping to make a Wild Card push, Paxton threw up a brutal 7.62 ERA in five starts post-trade deadline, then was shut down for good in early September.

And that, really, is the Paxton experience in a nutshell: When he’s on the mound, he has rare upside, but his body has a habit of betraying him at less than ideal times. The good news here for the Dodgers is that they won’t be relying on the lefty to anchor their staff; they brought in Yamamoto and Glasnow for that. Heck, they don’t even need Paxton to make it through a full, 30-start season, with swingman Ryan Yarbrough around and high-Minors prospects like Nick Frasso banging on the door. They just needed one more body in the mix, someone to give them 90-100 more innings and help them get their best arms to October in one piece. Paxton checks that box, and he also just so happens to provide more upside than any of the other candidates for the role.

Really, the most pertinent question is why the rest of the league allowed the lefty to wind up in L.A. It’s possible that, at age 35 and with a lengthy injury history, Paxton simply wanted to chase a World Series ring, and maybe he was willing to take a discount to become a Dodger. But it’s hard not to look at, say, the Baltimore Orioles, a team with a loaded young core and money to burn plus a glaring need in its rotation, and wonder why exactly they weren’t in on the bidding here. Heck, the Pirates just used the same amount of money the Dodgers took to sign Paxton and used it on Aroldis Chapman — a fine player at a fine price, to be sure, but one who doesn’t figure to command nearly the same sort of trade deadline return if they both pan out. Given how rare starting pitching is in this market and how many teams are in need, someone should’ve been willing to pay even Luis Severino money here.