By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
PEORIA, Ariz. — Two years ago, James Paxton didn’t know where to go and didn’t know anyone well enough to ask.
Signed a few weeks into spring training after being drafted almost nine months before in the 2010 draft, Paxton was invited to the Seattle Mariners big league camp.
It was a humbling and short-lived honor.
But he also couldn’t help but feel like an interloper in this new world of grown men. He wandered through the Mariners clubhouse just hoping to fit in with the rest of the guys.
Fast forward to this spring. Paxton isn’t trying to fit in, he’s trying to get in — to the Mariners rotation.
In that time, he’s grown into one of the top four pitching prospects in the organization with an outside chance of grabbing one of possibly two up-for-grabs spots in the Mariners’ rotation.
When asked about the wide-eyed, unsure kid that would often just sit quietly at his locker while the rest of the clubhouse swirled with noise and conversation, Paxton kind of chuckled.
“When I first signed, I was pretty nervous, I didn’t know anybody,” he said. “I definitely wasn’t comfortable in my shoes.”
But now, Paxton moves through the clubhouse with ease. He laughs. He teases. He has a presence.
“I’ve grown up as a player and a pitcher,” he said. “It’s made all the difference.”
Will that difference be enough to get him into the rotation? It’s not impossible.
Paxton certainly has the talent. The 6-foot-4 left-hander can throw a fastball that can reach up to 97 mph. He has a knee-buckling overhand curve ball that can leave batters perplexed.
All he needs is a little command with his pitches and more success with his changeup and he could be right there.
“My goal is to make this team,” he said. “That has to be your goal if you are here.”
On Friday, there were hints of Paxton’s potential and also signs of his inexperience in his first start of the Cactus League season.
Paxton pitched two innings, allowing three runs on two hits. He walked two batters — both of which scored — and gave up a two-run homer to Mitch Moreland.
“Obviously it was not ideal,” Paxton said. “I feel like I’m learning. I fell behind in some counts and had to work back with fastballs. And that doesn’t work too well at this level. I’d like to have better results next time”
Paxton made a conscious effort to throw his changeup during Friday’s game and during spring training. He needs that third pitch to complement his other two plus-level pitches.
“It’s been working pretty well for me so far, I threw some good ones today,” he said after Friday’s game.
After tinkering with different grips the past few years, Paxton has settled on the circle grip with his index finger tucked against his thumb, forming a circle, and the remaining three fingers used to generate movement on the pitch.
When he executes it right, the ball will break down and away from righthanded hitters.
“Just having that changeup will take guys off my fastball,” he said. “Guys start to cheat on my fastball, and when I see that I can use that changeup.”
What will also help Paxton this season is being healthy. He battled a painful case of tendonitis in right knee early in the 2012 season. The knee ached with every pitch as the full force of his 220-pound frame would come down on it in his delivery.
“Pitching with that soreness made things a little tough,” he said. “It affected me as far as not being able to finish (his delivery) consistently. I was always trying to find a comfortable place to finish.”
Paxton went on the disabled list for five weeks, resting and rehabbing the knee.
He came back and felt like a different pitcher, posting a 6-1 record with a 2.40 earned run average in his next 11 starts. He finished the season with a 9-4 record and 3.05 ERA He struck out 110 batters in 1061/3 innings pitched.
“Last season, I felt like it was good overall,” Paxton said. “Once I went on the DL and then came back healthy, I thought I pitched really well.”
Paxton has worked in the offseason and in the spring to fight a reoccurrence of the tendonitis.
“It’s gotten better,” he said. “We are doing preventative stuff to keep it healthy.”
It leaves him vying for those final rotation spots with three of his closest friends — Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and Brandon Maurer. The four of them are often found congregating by their lockers every morning. They all want one of those two spots, but they all want the others to be successful.
“We are all friends, and we want to see each other do well,” Paxton said. “It’s a friendly competitive thing. We are all pushing each other get better. It’s a really good dynamic.”