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October 9, 2012 at 7:38 PM

Mariners prospect James Paxton dazzles in Arizona Fall League debut

Today was the opener of the Arizona Fall League and I decided to drop by Peoria Stadium to have a look at Mariners Class AA prospect James Paxton starting for the Peoria Javelinas against the Surprise Saguaros. Peoria took the game, 5-2, but left-hander Paxton was the story, striking out five batters and allowing just a hit and a walk over three scoreless innings.
The hit was nothing special, a little blooped single to right (photo below) in the second inning. More of a pop fly that found the right spot. The hardest hit ball off him was a flyout to center to lead off the second.
Other than that, the only other baserunner off him reached on a routine grounder to shortstop. I caught up with Paxton as he was coming off the field and told him he sure knows how to put on a show when reporters come all the way from Seattle to see him. The first question he asked me was whether they get a lot of people in the stands for AFL games. I told him it depends, but generally speaking, no, not really. As good as the players are in this league — some of the top prospects in baseball get seen here — it’s not much of a crowd draw.
That said, the baseball is what we’re here to talk about, not the crowds. The guys in the crowd who mattered were GM Jack Zduriencik, manager Eric Wedge, top amateur scouts and player development guys like Tom McNamara and Chris Gwynn, not to mention a bunch of guys from other teams.
Paxton looked like a man amongst boys and that’s not always easy to do in a league where the ball tends to carry in the dry Arizona air, getting movement on pitches is tough and there are all kinds of sluggers looking to load up and impress their teams. The Peoria team is made up of players from six organizations, including the Mariners, and Paxton and Nick Franklin were the two big M’s prospects in uniform today.
More on Franklin in a bit.
Paxton seemed a lot more confident and poised when I spoke to him than the previous times I met him last spring. You can tell he’s grown a bit through all the hype about him and fellow pitchers Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen.
“It was an experience,” he said. “It was something I wasn’t really expecting but it’s been a lot of fun. Especially being able to play with those guys, all of us together down at AA and Brandon Mauer as well. We had a really good pitching staff. It was just a lot of fun to go through that together and try to figure it out and work our way through it.”
One of the things he worked through was a sore knee, which kept him on the DL for a month starting in May. But he built his leg back stronger and says it was problem-free for him in the second-half, when he went 6-1 with a 2.40 ERA in 11 starts.

Pitching-wise, Paxton overpowered hitters with his fastball today, generating plenty of swinging strikes. He got his fair share of called strikes with off-speed and breaking stuff among the 47 pitches thrown. He told me he threw about “five or six” change-ups which were mostly taken by the hitters — other than the flyout to center.
“My change-up’s been my big project pitch this year,” he said. “It’s gotten a lot better as the year’s gone on.”
Paxton also threw one cut fastball today. He said he might make that into a “project pitch” for later. His curveball remains a work-in-progress and he threw several.
Going into last spring, Paxton seemed the closest of Seattle’s three youngsters — he, Hultzen and Walker — to the big leagues and that hasn’t changed. Going into next spring, he’ll have a shot to make the big club out of camp.
“I’m feeling pretty good,” he said. “The big thing is, I just have to go out there and pitch the best that I can every time.”
That didn’t always happen for him last spring, or in the minors. Fastball command remains his biggest issue worth keeping an eye on. With better command — like he showed today — he’ll get results he needs.
One other thing worth mentioning abut today was Franklin, who was assumed to be the team’s shortstop of the future after being drafted in the first round in 2009. But we’d been hearing since midway through the past season that the Mariners aren’t sure Franklin’s defense is suited for shortstop.
I’d hear rumors the team was going to convert him to a full-time second baseman this winter. When I asked around during the season, I was told no decision had been made yet on whether Franklin was going to primarily be a second baseman here at the AFL. Well, today, he started at second base.
That is pretty significant and worth keeping an eye on. For a guy touted as a future shortstop, he got an awful lot of second base time as his season wound down following a promotion to AAA. Now, he’s playing second in the AFL as well. Look, teams do have to share playing time for prospects and it’s not unusual to see infielders have to play multiple spots at times. But given the rumors about Franklin, the uncertainty about what his position would be down here from folks I spoke to within the team late in the season and now this, it will be interesting to monitor.
Not only for the Mariners.
Because if Franklin winds up profiling as more of a second baseman, clearly the team has a few of those types who are young and in the majors already.
Teams don’t only use the AFL to gauge their own players. They use it to showcase those players to other teams.
Zduriencik knows he will likely have to swing some trades this winter to get some bats in here. Amongst guys who could be traded to bring something big back — Franklin and Paxton certainly rate.
Paxton didn’t cost the team a high draft pick — he cost Toronto that, but the M’s got him in the fourth round — like Hultzen or Walker. And Franklin, for all his prospective talent, could turn out best-suited for a postiion already filled.
Worth keeping an eye on.



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