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Scott Servais hopes James Paxton takes the next step, because Mariners ‘really need him’

James Paxton had a 3.09 ERA and 1.05 WHIP over his last 11 starts for the Mariners in 2016. (AP)
LISTEN: Mariners manager Scott Servais on additions, Felix's offseason

The Mariners will enter spring training with some new members of their starting rotation, but it’s a returning pitcher that could end up making the biggest impact in 2017: James Paxton.

The tall left-hander opened a lot of eyes last season, looking dominant at times after putting to use some mechanical tweaks that added some serious zip to his fastball – which sometimes flirted with triple-digits – and bite to his slider. Now, the Mariners are hoping that the 28-year-old Canadian can build on last year’s success and establish himself as a true front-of-the-rotation pitcher.

“James Paxton took a huge step forward for us last year,” Mariners manager Scott Servais told “Brock and Salk” on 710 ESPN Seattle. “Pax is in a good spot. For me, getting ready to take the next step is kinda where he’s at. And we really need him, there’s no doubt.”

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Paxton has long had high expectations in Seattle, but he wasn’t able to stay healthy long enough to make a significant mark in his first three seasons. Entering last year, he had never thrown more than 74 innings or appeared in more than 13 games in a season for the Mariners. But in 2016, he was able to make 20 starts for Seattle – even after spending April and May in Triple-A – and finished with strong numbers, including a 3.79 ERA, 1.31 WHIP and 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings.

Perhaps the best indication of Paxton’s improvement was that he was especially effective in the final two months, although he did miss a few weeks after being hit on the elbow with a batted ball. Over his last 11 starts, he posted a 3.09 ERA and 1.05 WHIP, including a four-start stretch from July 22 to Aug. 7 (when he was hit on the elbow) in which he had a 1.59 ERA and 0.74 WHIP.

Servais said part of Paxton benefited last year from losing weight in the offseason, but the skipper didn’t discount his natural ability.

“He really worked hard last offseason to get in good shape. He lost some weight,” Servais said. “He is not the most gifted athlete, (but) he’s got an unbelievable arm, and he’s really starting to come into his own and understanding his stuff.”

It’s not just Paxton who is understanding more about what he has to offer, either. Servais said the analytics department for the Mariners has pointed out a pretty interesting point concerning Paxton and a fellow left-hander that he has been known to model himself after – Dodgers star and three-time National League Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw.

“One of the things they looked at – as great as we’ve seen Clayton Kershaw, he’s awesome, great competitor, one of the best sliders … James Paxton’s slider actually grades out better. Just on spin rates, movement, the velocity of it and stuff like that,” Servais said. “Now, he is not Clayton Kershaw, we get that. But the ability that he has and what he can do … he’s starting to come into that.”