(Photo by Getty Images)
The photo above is of the much-hyped Bryce Harper on his third-inning ground out to first base in today’s Futures Game at Chase Field in Phoenix. The pitcher who got him out on the dribbler was Mariners prospect James Paxton, the last out of Paxton’s very impressive inning of work.
You remember Paxton’s story — left-hander, drafted in the supplemental first round out of the University of Kentucky by Toronto in 2009 (No. 37 overall), doesn’t sign, tries to go back to Kentucky but becomes embroiled in a legal battle with the NCAA over agent Scott Boras’s role in his negotiations, leaves school and signs with the Grand Prairie AirHogs of the independent American Association. Then he’s drafted in the fourth round by the Mariners in 2010 and finally signs, nine months later, on March 8, a few weeks into spring training.
There were concerns over how the long layoff would affect Paxton, but he’s having a strong season that has renewed his status as a blue-chip prospect. At Class A Clinton, Paxton was 3-3 with a 2.73 ERA in 10 starts, showing overpowering stuff at times and striking out 80 in 56 innings.
“When I first got there, I was trying to get my control back,” Paxton said today. “As you probably saw, I walked a lot of people. I was really trying to focus on throwing strikes and getting ahead in the count. That’s the biggest thing I’ve been working on.”
Paxton earned a promotion to Class AA Jackson, where in his lone start so far he gave up three runs (two earned) in 4 2/3 innings while striking out just one.
“I was a little wound up and nervous for that one,” he said. “I think my next start there will be a lot better. I was a little tight. I wasn’t letting the ball loose like I can.”
I asked him if he feels like his stuff is back where it used to be before his long layoff.
“I feel pretty good,” he said. “My curve ball is coming back, slowly. It’s starting to feel pretty good. The big thing for me right now is working on a changeup. I just started throwing a new changeup about a month and a half ago. I’m trying to get comfortable with that pitch. I think it’s going to be a big part of my game.
He said he was never worried about regaining his form, though similar layoffs have had a negative affect on some pitchers.
“I’m quite confident in my abilities,” he said. “I knew when I came back I could find it all again. It’s not like I stopped throwing completely. I was still throwing bullpens. I know it’s completely different than facing a hitter. I still knew it was there.”
In today’s stint in the Futures Game, which brings together the top minor-leaguers in a World vs. U.S. format (Paxton, a Canadian, was on the World team), he breezed through his lone inning of work. He got Jason Kipnis — a former University of Kentucky teammate who had homered earlier in the game — on a broken-bat comebacker, retired Manny Machado on a fly out, and then got Harper on the grounder to first. The 18-year-old Harper, last year’s No. 1 overall pick by the Nationals, was 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, but showed a laser arm with a throw from the base of the left-field wall that reached the catcher on a line, without bouncing.
“I felt pretty good, actually,” Paxton said. “Surprisingly. I expected to be quite nervous, but once I got out there and threw my first couple of warmup pitches, I just calmed myself down, and focused on throwing strikes.”
Paxton, 22, will now head back to Jackson and then embark immediately on a road trip to Carolina.
“I’ve got a nice little bus ride when I get back,” he said. “I think it’s about 14 hours.”
The Mariners’ other representative in the Futures Game — for the third year in a row — was third baseman Alex Liddi. The native of Italy started at third base for the World team and batted fifth, going 0-for-3 with a strikeout in the World’s 6-4 loss.
Being in three Futures Games, of course, is a mixed blessing. It means you haven’t yet made it to the major leagues.
“For sure, it wouldn’t be bad to be in the big leagues,” Liddi said. “It’s still a good time, a good experience. But I’d rather be in the big leagues.”
Liddi, 22, has 17 homers and 61 RBIs in his first year at Triple-A with Tacoma, but he’s hitting just .257 and has struck out 110 times in 346 at-bats. “Up and down” is the phrase Liddi used to describe his season.
“I’m trying to be more consistent,” he said. “At the plate, baserunning, defense. I think I can do way better than I’m doing, but I don’t think it’s that bad a season.”
Liddi has been seeing some recent playing time at shortstop — 17 games so far at the position. He realizes that displaying versatility could speed his path to the majors.
“It’s a big thing,” he said. “If someone in the upper level plays your position and makes a lot of money, you’re not going to take his spot, so it’s always good to show you can play more positions.”
Liddi has watched teammates like Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager, Carlos Peguero and Greg Halman get the call from Tacoma to Seattle this season.
“I’m really happy for those guys,” he said. “They’re close friends of mine.”
Does he think he has a chance to follow their path this year?
“The hope is always there, no matter what happens,” he said. “I’m just tryring to get better and work hard every day. I mean, we’re right there (in Tacoma) — 30 miles away. It’s really close. It’s just a matter of being more consistent. In baseball, it’s all about being consistent.”
Liddi opened eyes in spring training by hitting grand slams in consecutive games.
“I hope they learned my name, so one day they’ll call me up,” he said with a smile.