Mariners Notebook: Servais explains why James Paxton’s return is ‘great fit’
The guy who did not want last season to come to an end was almost giddy about the start of the new year for the Mariners.
In his first meeting with the media of the spring via Zoom, Mariners manager Scott Servais expressed his excitement about seeing his players, the 50 days of spring training they have to prepare, the competition they will have for roster spots and one big return that became official Thursday morning.
“I’m fired up about it,” Servais said of the addition of James Paxton. “We know what Pax can do. Having grown up as a Mariner, I think he is a great guy to put in the clubhouse with our young players.”
Adding Paxton was an offseason-long endeavor that was fueled in part by what was seen in an open bullpen session in Bellevue last November, one attended by 18 to 20 teams by Servais’ estimate.
“He was the Big Maple,” he said. “It was coming out hot, after the first 10 or 12 pitches I said this guy is ready to roll. I didn’t know what kind of chance we had at signing him but it did work out for us. Once in a while you’ve got to get a little lucky and I am very thankful he’s coming back.”
From afar, Servais liked what he saw from Paxton in 2019, the left-hander’s first year with the Yankees after being traded by Seattle.
“Often you see a new organization, new set of eyes, they are going to throw a few things at you,” he said. “We saw kind of a continuation of what we saw here in ’17, ’18, starting to figure out his stuff. He goes to New York, puts together a pretty good year, didn’t surprise me.”
Servais anticipates the addition of Paxton will have an impact on the Mariners that goes beyond what he does on the mound every sixth day.
“Any time you can add at the top (of the rotation) it certainly makes you a heck of a lot better because you’ve got much more depth built up behind that,” he said. “Maybe it takes a little pressure off the other guys, slots them into a situation where we don’t have to have so much out of them. This group has been very driven, competition raises the bar and we have created a ton of competition at the backside of our rotation.”
That competition translates to depth, which the Mariners will surely need this season. Keeping pitchers healthy appears to be priority 1a along with keeping COVID-19 at bay. Utilizing a six-man rotation will be a key part of maintaining arm health and one that Servais will not be tempted to stray away from, even though Paxton might after a few strong outings.
“We’re committed to it,” said Servais, noting that it was talked about quite a bit with Paxton and his representation. “We are going to stay disciplined to the six-man rotation. I think it’s really, really important getting the rest in between, getting the extra bullpen for some of our young players, but also making sure we have something left in the tank when we get to August and September because I am really hopeful those are going to be big games, meaningful games for us and I want our best guys out there.”
The key of course will be health for Paxton, who underwent back surgery a year ago and was shut down in early September because of a flexor strain. While they like what they have seen from him, the Mariners will slow play him at the start of spring training. With 50 days to get ready, there is no rush.
“If he looks at all like he did in the offseason when we saw him throw, I’ve got no worries there,” said Servais. “I think it is a great fit for him and I know it’s a really good fit for us.”
It’s funny how sometimes things can work out, and in this case that’s exactly what happened according to Servais.
“When we made the trades at the end of ’18 we traded away a lot of good players,” he said. “On the flip side, I said at the time we got a lot of good players back in the deal. Everyone looked at me and kind of rolled their eyes, now we are starting to see it play out.
“This season where we are at, where Pax is at, I think it is a great fit. He’s got the chance to reestablish himself as maybe one of the top 10 starters in our league. He’s certainly got the stuff to do that, now we’ve got to to keep him healthy, allow him to do that.”
The plan with Logan Gilbert
Check one item off my list of five things to watch in spring training. The plan for Logan Gilbert, who saw no competitive innings last year and has pitched one full pro season, became more clear Thursday.
“We need to be careful on his ramp up,” Servais said of Seattle’s top-ranked pitching prospect. “He’s probably one of the guys we are most locked in on to make sure he has got fuel left in August, September.”
With other young starters who pitched last year, the Mariners are aiming in the 140-160 innings range for Gilbert to throw in 2021. Managing Gilbert, who spent the 2020 season at the Mariners’ alternate site in Tacoma, will be trickier. He will pitch, just not in longer stretches.
“The reports I have gotten on his bullpens, everything has notched up,” said Servais. “The (velocity), if you know Logan at all, nobody takes it more seriously than he does. He’s going to get every opportunity to show us what he’s got, but I doubt you will see him out there for five to six innings.”
• To make room for Paxton on the 40-man roster, right-handed reliever Andrés Muñoz was placed on the 60-day IL. Muñoz, one of the promising young players the Mariners acquired in the Austin Nola trade with San Diego, is still working his way back from Tommy John surgery. The Mariners are hoping Muñoz will make a mid-season return, and he is in camp and has been throwing bullpens.
• One item of business that could help with setting plans for Seattle’s younger players is the minor league start dates, which were announced Thursday morning. The good news here is that while these dates are subject to change, there should not be a long delay between the end of camp and the start of their seasons. Triple-A is scheduled to get going April 6-8 and the rest of the levels on May 4.
• Servais confirmed that teams in Arizona will have the option of playing seven-inning games and rolling over innings early on in the schedule. With no minor league side in camp to draw extra arms from, this makes sense. Servais anticipates early on that the games will be nine innings as they work everybody in but that we could see shorter contests closer to March 14 when nine-inning games will be required. “It’s about getting our guys ready,” he said of the different look. “It’s not about winning a spring training game.”
• This is not quite the “best shape of their life report,” and we will have to take Servais’ word for it as the media is not permitted to watch workouts until the full squad reports, but the players that the skipper thought looked great included Mitch Haniger, Yusei Kikuchi (who has lost 10 pounds), J.P. Crawford (who has put on muscle), and Jake Fraley, who trimmed down quite a bit. “The plans we gave our players in the offseason, they got after it. I like what I have seen so far,” said Servais.
• The Mariners have been honored by the Blood Banking Industry with an Award of Excellence for the Blood Drive of the Year. After spring training shut down in March of 2020, not all was quiet at T-Mobile Park as the Mariners partnered with Bloodworks Northwest to open a pop-up donor center in the Ellis Pavillion. From April 13 to June 25, the donor center at T-Mobile Park brought in more than 3,200 units of life-saving blood.
“I want to thank Bloodworks Northwest for giving the Mariners the opportunity to make T-Mobile Park available to serve our community during this world-wide health crisis,” Seattle Mariners chairman and managing partner John Stanton said in a press release. “This award is a great honor and an example of what we can do when we work together to find creative solutions to overwhelming challenges. I hope our partnership with Bloodworks Northwest will continue for many years.”
If you are able, you can make blood donation appointments at bloodworksnw.org or by calling 800-398-7888. Donation is by appointment only to ensure appropriate social distancing, so no walk-ins. All donors must wear a mask, and no visitors under the age of 16.