(James Paxton (right) and Danny Hultzen watch today’s intrasquad game in Peoria)
There have been a lot of notable Mariner transformations since last season. Franklin Gutierrez put on 20 pounds of muscle. Justin Smoak is noticeably more fit, and Felix Hernandez has taken off some pounds. Ichiro is unveiling a new batting style.
But to me, the most startling transformation has been undergone by 23-year-old pitcher James Paxton. It’s not physical, though he’s sporting a beard that wasn’t there last year. It’s a matter of poise, comfort and maturity. Compared to the Paxton who was here last spring, it’s like an entirely new person.
Last year, you might recall, Paxton didn’t even sign his contract with the Mariners until March 4, having held out after being drafted in the fourth round the previous June. He showed up in camp a few days after that — three weeks or so after the rest of the Mariners pitchers and catchers had reported. He literally knew no one, and others in that boat had already had time to bond with each other. Paxton had no one, and much of the time in the clubhouse, he sat at his locker looking straight ahead. In interviews, he was nervous and hesitant. His teammates didn’t know quite what to make of the newcomer.
“Last year was a little weird, definitely,” Paxton said. “I came out of nowhere, in the middle of camp. I wasn’t even here yet (at this time) last year. I came here for a couple of weeks and just got a taste. This year, I’m much more comfortable, definitely. I feel like I belong here. It’s just a totally different experience.”
It shows. Paxton appears much more relaxed and poised, and he’s got buddies on the team after playing a full season at Class A Clinton and Class AA Jackson. Some of his teammates, like Taijuan Walker, are in camp with him. Paxton has clearly bonded with Danny Hultzen and Walker, who have become like a three-headed monster in evaluations of the Mariners’ future. The three highly touted pitchers locker adjacent to each other in the clubhouse, and recently went out to dinner together for the first time.
“It was fun, a lot of laughs,” Paxton said. “It’s a lot of fun to be with these guys here and be able to share the experience, and talk. It’s been cool. I feel we spend a lot of time together at the field. We’re pretty close, talking and asking each other what’s going on. It’s good.”
Interviewing Paxton is an entirely different experience from last year. He’s expansive and articulate, much more at ease. That could well stem from his overall increased comfort level in camp compared to last year, when he was behind his teammates in every aspect.
“I think it was just that, and a little bit of being uncomfortable last year, being thrown into it not knowing anybody,” he said. “This year, I played with a lot of these guys last year, so I feel a little more comfortable. I know some people. I have some experience in pro ball, so I’m a little more comfortable being here.”
Last spring, Paxton was also trying to regain his groove after missing virtually an entire season, except for four games in independent ball, as a result of not signing with the Blue Jays as a supplemental first rounder in 2009. He went back into the 2010 draft and was picked by the Mariners.
“Over that time I was waiting to sign, I didn’t stop throwing,” Paxton said. “I knew I still had it. It’s definitely different having a batter in the box. That’s why I feel I was a little wild to start the year. I was confident I still had it and it didn’t go away. I was looking forward to getting going.”
Paxton walked 30 in 56 innings for Clinton, where he was 3-3 with a 2.73 ERA and 80 strikeouts in 10 starts. For Jackson, he was 3-0, 1.85 in seven starts, wtih 51 strikeouts and 13 walks in 39 innings.
Paxton is clearly on the fast track to the major leagues, though I would still be surprised if he makes the team out of camp. I would be just as surprised, however, if he didn’t join the rotation at some point during the season.
“I haven’t had any conversations with (Eric) Wedge or (pitching coach Carl) Willis on how fast I’m going to get to the big leagues, how long it’s going to take me,” he said. “I have to go out there and do the best I can and see what happens.”