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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

January 31, 2011 at 12:46 PM

Zduriencik discusses unsigned draft pick James Paxton

fanfest.JPG

(Safeco Field is a beehive of activity Sunday at FanFest. I snapped this photo shortly before the event closed. A total of 12,298 fans attended the two-day event, according to Rebecca Hale of the Mariners. Hale says that’s just shy of last year’s crowd, but well ahead of attendance for 2006-09).

While at FanFest on Saturday to talk to Chone Figgins, I had a chance to ask Jack Zduriencik about their fourth-round draft pick in 2010, left-handed pitcher James Paxton, who remains unsigned. I know a lot of readers have asked about Paxton, so I made a point of talking to Zduriencik about him.

The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Paxton is a very interesting case. He had a breakout season as a junior at the University of Kentucky in 2009, finishing third in the NCAA in strikeouts per nine innings (13.22). He put himself on the map in a game with eventual NCAA champion LSU, in a duel with their ace, Anthony Ranuado (now one of the top pitching prospects in the Red Sox organization). Paxton got 12 of his first 13 outs via strikeout and finished with 14 strikeouts in six innings, allowing five hits and three runs. In his next start, with 60 scouts in attendance, he out-dueled Vanderbilt’s Mike Minor — an eventual first-round pick by the Braves — by allowing just two hits in 6 2/3 innings, with 10 strikeouts.

The Blue Jays made Paxton a supplemental first-round selection in the 2009 draft (No. 37 overall), but the two sides could not come to contract terms. Paxton, with Scott Boras as his advisor, reportedly turned down a bonus in the neighborhood of $1 million, and decided to return to Kentucky for his senior season.

Baseball America named him the top senior in college baseball prior to the season, and he was widely regarded as a likely top 10 draft pick in 2010. However, Paxton became wrangled in a legal battle with the NCAA over Boras’s role in his negotiations. The upshot was that he was not allowed to play for Kentucky his senior season. Paxton eventually wound up pitching for the independent Grand Prarie Air Hogs in Texas and trying his lot again in the 2010 draft.

In that 2010 draft last June, the Mariners picked Paxton — who is from Ladner, British Columbia — in the fourth round (132nd overall). Many scouting analysts felt it was a shrewd sleeper pick by Seattle, and that the Mariners had stolen a potential first-round talent. Yet here it is Jan. 31, and Paxton still hasn’t signed. Because he is no longer in college, Paxton was not subject to the Aug. 16 signing deadline. The Mariners thus own his rights until the week before the 2011 draft in June — but Zduriencik is hoping it doesn’t get that far.

“There has been a conversation or two over the course of the winter,” he said. “It will be an interesting one, because here’s a guy who lives just an hour and a half up the road, and there’s a point in time he needs to get his career moving. You know, he’s missed time in pro ball. I couldn’t think of a better scenario for him and his family (than) to drive right down the road and play for the Seattle Mariners.

“As we move forward and we get closer, we’ll see what happens. I would hope there’s a motivating factor on his part to try to get something moving. Scott (Boras) and I have had a few discussions here and there over the winter, but we haven’t had any lately.”

In a somewhat similar situation, not long after he was hired, Zduriencik signed reliever Josh Fields, the Mariners’ first-round pick in 2008 (No. 20 overall) on Feb. 16, 2009 — just as spring training was starting. Fields, as a college senior at Georgia, also would have remained their property until a week before the next draft. The difference is that Fields (also represented by Boras) had pitched his senior season, while Paxton has been limited to brief time in independent ball since he last pitched collegiately in 2009.

I asked Zduriencik if there was a shot to sign Paxton in time to get him to camp this spring.

“We don’t control those things,” he said. “All these decisions on signing a player are not always in your control. What you would love to have happen, you are unable to make it happen in terms of how it unfolds. We’ll see what happens. I would hope he would be motivated to try to come here. I think he would be a very interesting piece for this organization.”

You have to wonder now whether Paxton will be able to regain the form that once made him such a highly touted prospect, considering the layoff. If so, he could indeed be that sleeper pick that scouts talked about. It seems logical, however, that the longer he waits, the more difficult his task becomes.

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