James Paxton returned to the Mariners’ rotation last night after two years in the Bronx, but his start was cut short by another forearm injury, as he exited after just 1 1/3 innings. Outfielder Jake Fraley, meanwhile, left the game with what the team later announced as a hamstring strain after making a diving catch in left field. Both players will undergo an MRI this morning, manager Scott Servais told reporters after the game (via Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times).
Paxton’s 2020 season with the Yankees was cut short by a forearm strain, so it’s obviously a concerning development for him to suffer this type of injury — particularly so early in the season. The lefty did tell Divish and others that the pain he’s feeling in his arm isn’t at the same level as it was when he sustained that injury last summer.
The Mariners brought Paxton back to the organization on a one-year, $8.5MM free agent deal over the winter. The 32-year-old had interest from several teams, as one would expect based on his track record of success, but he seemingly preferred to return to Seattle. Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto noted at the time of the signing that Paxton had been sharp in workouts for MLB teams and gave the club something of a “hometown discount.”
The reunion looked to be going well in Spring Training, where Paxton struck out half of the 34 batters he faced and allowed just one run during Cactus League play. For the time being, he struck an optimistic tone that the current issue could be muscular in nature and something from which he can quickly return.
As for Fraley, the 25-year-old is out to an unusual start to his 2021 season. He’s just 1-for-10 through five games, but he’s drawn eight walks and been hit by a pitch, leading to a bizarre .100/.500/.200 batting line through his first 19 plate appearances. Acquired from the Rays as part of the Mike Zunino trade, Fraley hasn’t hit much in two prior stints with the Mariners in 2019-20, but he only tallied 70 plate appearances during that time. He’s a career .286/.362/.480 hitter in the minors — including a .276/.333/.553 showing in 38 Triple-A games.
For the moment, however, it seems that an IL stint could be on the horizon, which will have the baseball world watching intently. The most straightforward move for the M’s would simply be to recall Braden Bishop from their alternate site, as he’s on the 40-man roster already, but Seattle also has top prospect Jarred Kelenic on the cusp of his first big league promotion as well.
Kelenic’s service time status was thrust into the national spotlight when now-former CEO Kevin Mather blatantly indicated in a Q&A with the Bellevue Rotary Club that the 21-year-old Kelenic had turned down an extension offer and wouldn’t be called to the Majors until mid-April (the general point at which the Mariners would gain an extra year of control over Kelenic). Kelenic missed some time in Spring Training with a minor knee injury, but he returned to the lineup and immediately went 3-for-6 with a double and a homer in two games before being reassigned to minor league camp, so the injury looks to be behind him.
It still seems likelier that the Mariners will turn to Bishop for the time being, as calling up Kelenic now would still give him enough time to accrue a full year of Major League service in 2021. That would no longer be the case as soon as next weekend, however.
Turning back to the pitching staff, the Mariners were already using a six-man rotation, so it’s likely they’ll simply shorten up to five starters for the time being and carry an extra reliever. The bullpen had to cover 7 2/3 innings last night and took a beating at the hands of the White Sox in the process, so Seattle would probably prefer to get a fresh arm into the relief mix anyhow.
It’s at least worth noting that as with the Fraley/Kelenic situation, the Mariners have a highly regarded pitching prospect who is near MLB readiness: 2018 first-rounder Logan Gilbert. While this comment didn’t draw as much attention as the Kelenic revelation, Mather indicated in that same interview that he expected Gilbert to be pitching in the Majors by mid-April (obviously, an allusion to his service time). Gilbert, however, only tossed a pair of innings in Spring Training before being reassigned to minor league camp, so he may not yet be built up to the point where he’s an option even in the event that Paxton is shelved for a notable period of time. If the Mariners want to stick with a six-man rotation and Paxton does miss some time, they could give a few starts to Ljay Newsome and/or Nick Margevicius. Before too long, however, Gilbert seems likely to emerge as an option at the big league level.