Left-handed pitcher James Paxton walked into the interview area this weekend at Safeco Field when the Mariners held their annual FanFest — and the first question was easy: “Where’s the rest of you?”
Paxton, now 27, is down 20 pounds or more since he ended last season relegated again to inactivity due to the latest in a series of odd and often baffling injuries.
“(The weight loss) was a little bit planned,” the former University of Kentucky standout said. “Rick (Griffin, the head trainer) talked to me about losing 10 pounds or so. I did a little bit more than that. So I’m feeling really good and ready to go.
“I’m about 220, down from 240-ish. When I came in (as a rookie), I was right about 215-200. That’s about where I’m at right now. I kind of hover between 215 and 220.”
The overriding hope is a leaner Paxton is a more-athletic Paxton and less susceptible to what he terms “weird injuries” after pitching less than 75 innings in each of the last two seasons.
“I think it’s time for me to show that I can last an entire an entire season,” he acknowledged. “Knock on wood. Hopefully, I’m done with those (injuries) and can just move forward.”
But Paxton’s tone sharpens when asked for his response to those who contend his history shows he simply can’t remain healthy.
“I’d say, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about,’” he countered. “I can’t control a finger injury. It’s not like I’ve blown out my elbow or shoulder. It’s not because I don’t work out or work hard.
“I’m just going to go out there and do what I do and trust that the work that I’ve done is going to keep me healthy.”
It’s a defensible point.
Paxton missed four months in 2014 because of a strained left latissimus dorsi muscle in his back.
“I think that injury, my lat, was because I was working out too hard,” Paxton said. “I think I needed to draw back a little bit once the season started. I’ve learned that.
“With the training staff, I’ve made the adjustments necessary for that not to happen. But as far as the finger stuff, I feel like that’s just a fluke thing. Just bad luck.”
Paxton missed time last spring when he bruised both forearms when he stumbled to the ground in an agility drill. He recovered in time to begin the season in the rotation and made 10 starts before suffering a strained tendon in his middle finger.
The finger injury healed slowly because of its location. Efforts to accelerate the process by using paraffin wax, Paxton believes, prompted September problems with a blister and a torn nail on the same finger.
“It just softened my skin up so much,” he said, “that when I started putting all of that pressure on it, (the nail) just lifted up.”
That troublesome nail provided a possible benefit when Paxton returned to action in the Arizona Fall League as a way to log some innings. He was only permitted to throw fastballs and changeups. No breaking balls on the still-tender finger.
Paxton sharpened his changeup and began working with minor-league pitching coach Rich Dorman on a high fastball.
“Guys were always looking down in the zone for me,” Paxton said, “because I have that (12-to-6) angle. But when I change the angle, and have a high fastball, they can’t cheat down there all of the time. It makes it a lot harder for them.
“I’m looking forward to continuing to work on that in spring training.”
The main thing, Paxton said, is he’s healthy. And when healthy in the past, he often performed like a top-of-the rotation starter. Paxton is 12-8 in his career with a 3.16 ERA in 30 starts over the last three seasons.
Some perspective: A year ago, only five American League pitchers had better marks than 3.16 while pitching the 162 or more innings necessary to qualify for the ERA title.
“James Paxton has shown that he’s capable of being (dominant) when he’s out on the mound,” General Manager Jerry Dipoto said. “We need to make sure he’s out on the mound.”
Simply put, though, the Mariners’ new administration isn’t willing to bank on a healthy Paxton — or even guarantee that a healthy Paxton will open the season in the rotation.
“I think there’s going to be a great competition for the fifth spot in our starting rotation,” Dipoto said, “and I think we have, minimally, six and perhaps up to eight or nine legitimate candidates.
“The fact that our fifth or sixth starter may be physically as gifted as most people’s two or three. I think that’s exciting to me.”
Let’s break that down.
Long-time ace Felix Hernandez isn’t going to be fighting this spring for a job. Barring injuries, veterans Hisashi Iwakuma and Wade Miley are also locks because of their contracts (guarantees of $12 million and $6.167 million in 2016).
That leaves Paxton, Taijuan Walker and newcomer Nathan Karns in a battle for two spots. All three have options — meaning they can be sent to the minors without clearing waivers — and none are likely to make more than $525,000.
But don’t think all three are viewed evenly as the Feb. 19 start of spring camp approaches. Dipoto began gushing over Walker’s potential when hired Sept. 29 as the club’s new general manager.
“Right now, going in,” Dipoto said, “Taijuan Walker made great progress over the last half, even last two-thirds of last year. I think you started to see some of what he was capable of, and we want to see him take one of those jobs.”
That doesn’t mean Walker couldn’t pitch his way out of the rotation, but it seems to position Paxton and Karns are the likely candidates for the final spot. Karns, 28, was 7-5 with a 3.67 ERA last season at Tampa Bay.
“It’s going to be a competitive thing,” Paxton agreed, “but that’s what baseball is. Nobody said it was going to be easy. I’m looking forward to the competition.
“I’m just going to go out there and do the same thing I do no matter what the circumstances: That’s just compete to the best of my ability.”
That starts with being healthy and, right now, Paxton is healthy.
“I don’t want to talk about injuries anymore,” he said. “I just want to talk about baseball. Hopefully, this year it will be all about winning games and not ‘when are you coming back?’”