Should the Yankees lock up James Paxton before he hits free agency?

James Paxton is set to hit free agency after the conclusion of the 2020 season. Should the Yankees spend big money to retain Big Maple?

The Yankees have a number of interesting decisions ahead of them in free agency. The question of whether or not to ink James Paxton to a big money extension might be the most important call Brian Cashman has to make.

Paxton’s current deal with the Yankees is set to expire after the 2020 season. That means the Yankees are already on the clock when it comes to talking about an extension with the talented southpaw.

If the season had begun on time, Paxton wouldn’t have been able to help the Yankees on Opening Day. He underwent lumbar surgery on February 6th which was originally supposed to sideline him for four months. He’s recently begun a throwing program with the hopes that he can be ready when the season finally does begin. That injury certainly takes the pressure off of Cashman and his front office to make any quick decisions regarding Cashman’s future. It’s still going to be a tough call for the Yankees when the time does come to offer Paxton a new deal.

The case for letting him walk

Paxton’s injury history is full of potential red flags for the franchise. His recent back ailment might be an isolated incident, but his history of arm issues will give the team’s medical staff a lot of pause. It’s easy to envision a scenario where the Yankees simply conclude that Paxton is too much of a medical risk to invest tens of millions of dollars in moving forward.

It’s also possible that Paxton and his representatives will be looking to break the bank. To date, he’s never pitched like a bona fide ace for a full season. Even if you overlook his inability to stay healthy for a full 162 game slate, it’s fair to point out that he’s never put together a single, dominant season.

His 2017 season for the Mariners came close, but he only managed to make 24 starts. That puts a seriou discount on the impact he made for Seattle despite his sterling 2.98 ERA. He’s pitched well in larger stretches during in 2018 and 2019, but his ERA jumped nearly a full run in each campaign when compared to his 2017 numbers. To put it plainly, Paxton pitches more like a solid No. 2 starter than a legitimate ace. He should be paid accordingly.

The case to re-sign him

The Yankees are desperate to make their starting rotation one of the best groups in baseball. Cashman and the team’s decision makers clearly understand that high-quality starting pitching is  a requirement for postseason success.

At his best, Paxton can outduel almost any opponent the Yankees might face in October. He might not pitch like an ace for a full season, but he can be magical for one, high-leverage game. Allowing him to leave in free agency would cost New York a pitcher capable of winning a must-win playof game for the franchise.

The questions about his health are understandable, but it’s also fair to point out that things may be trending in the right direction on that front. He’s eclipsed the 150 innings mark exactly twice in his career. The fact that he’s done so in his last two campaigns is a reason that he can improve his workload moving forward. It’s easy to envsion a scenario where Paxton is just entering the prime of his production based on a moderate uptick in his physical health.

The biggest reason why the Yankees should give Paxton big money in free agency is becaue they don’t have enough high-end talent in their pitching pipeline. Guys like Deivi Garcia, Clarke Schmidt and Michael King might impact the back end of the rotation soon, but no one in the upper levels of the farm system looks to be a potential ace. That reality will put pressure on Cashman to retain any major league pitcher who has a chance of becoming a bona fide No. 1 starter.

So what will the Yankees do?

It will be a major surprise if the Yankees let Paxton walk after the 2020 season. Things could change if he can’t return and pitch effectively after his lumbar injury. If he comes back after that malady and pitches up to his potential he’s going to be in line for a big pay day.

Next: 5 reasons the Yankees should trade Giancarlo Stanton

The Yankees aren’t going to give Paxton a blank check, but they aren’t going to risk losing him for nothing in return either. There may be some tense negotiations related to both years and dollars in his next deal, but there are too many reason for Cashman to lock Paxton down for the long haul. Look for Big Maple to spend the rest of his prime in the Bronx.

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