Every free agent left-handed pitcher entering his age-35 season is headed to Southern California. Canadian bird magnet James Paxton has agreed to a one-year deal with the Dodgers, with base compensation of $11 million and another $2 million (half of it fascinatingly attainable) available in bonus. Another top pitching prospect from the 2010s, Matt Moore, is returning to the Angels for $9 million.
These were two of the premier left-handed pitching prospects in baseball in the early 2010s, and their current fates really illustrate how far in the past that was. Nevertheless, Paxton’s ability continues to tempt teams into thinking, “No, this time will be different, he’ll stay healthy, I know it.” Meanwhile, Moore has reinvented himself into one of the best in baseball at a different job than the one he trained for.
Let’s start with Paxton, whose contract calls for an unusual bonus: $1 million if he’s healthy and active on Opening Day, or $500,000 if he starts the year on the IL but is in the majors by April 15. Roster bonuses are quite common, especially for pitchers, as are split contracts that pay $X in the majors but $Y in the minor leagues. (The Phillies just gave Kolby Allard the latter, in fact.)
But Paxton’s contract, for big guaranteed money no matter what, contains this big up-front payment if Paxton can even make it to March 20 — the date of the Dodgers’ first game against the Padres in Seoul — healthy. Because the question with Paxton has rarely been quality, but availability.
The last four times Paxton threw 120 or more innings in the majors, he put up at least 3.5 WAR each season. Those four campaigns came consecutively, from 2016 to 2019. Over that time, he was 12th in WAR, 10th in strikeout rate and K-BB%, 20th in ERA-, and 25th in opponent batting average among the 68 pitchers who threw at least 500 innings out of the rotation over that four-season span.
That’s solid no. 2 starter territory, particularly by today’s workload standers. But it’s less encouraging than it might otherwise be if you look at the whole leaderboard. Because if you do, you’ll see names like Madison Bumgarner, Mike Foltynewicz, Stephen Strasburg, Gio González — guys who are not only outside their primes, but have been for ages.
The knock on Paxton has always been that he can’t stay healthy, and as time went on he became progressively less able to do so. In 2020, 2021, and 2022 put together, he made six starts totaling 21 2/3 innings. The other $1 million of bonuses that Paxton can earn comes on a start-by-start basis: $250,000 for 16 starts, another $250,000 for 18 starts, and an additional $500,000 at start no. 20, which Paxton hasn’t done since 2019, which is the year Billie Eilish’s first studio album came out.
In 2023, however, Paxton showed the signs of life that allowed him to command an $11 million contract, even an incentive-laded one. He made 19 starts and threw 96 innings for the Red Sox, in a campaign that was bookended by IL stints for leg injuries.
Between those trips to the infirmary, Paxton posted his lowest strikeout rate since 2016, and his highest ERA- in a full season since 2015. Paxton’s repertoire hasn’t changed much in terms of proportion or composition since his last effective season before 2023; his cutter is coming in about three miles an hour slower, and accordingly it’s dropping a few inches more. And the changeup has gone from a show-me pitch to a regular part of Paxton’s arsenal against right-handed hitters.
Nevertheless, Paxton was about league-average last year (his ERA- was 99), and the Dodgers could use 20 starts and 100 innings of league-average starting pitching. Because, you see, the Dodgers are already spending some $73 million (adjusting for deferrals) on large, injury-prone pitchers: Shohei Ohtani and Tyler Glasnow. Ohtani, as you know, is going to spend the entire forthcoming season as a hitter only while he recovers from UCL reconstruction.
So the Dodgers need someone to pick up the slack in terms of innings, and are paying Paxton what is now back-end rotation money to provide that service. It’s a risk — the Dodgers seem to have bet that some combination of pitchers is going to be able to make 162 five-inning starts for them this regular season, and that is not a given. But expectations for Paxton are relatively low, and compared to other potential sacrifices to the God of Innings, he has the potential to be usable in the playoffs.
Moore, the heir presumptive to Scott Kazmir and David Price with the Rays a decade ago, suffered a run of injuries and ineffectiveness during his last days as a starter. From 2017 to 2021, Moore made 97 appearances, 58 of them starts, for four teams. The results were horrendous — a 5.89 ERA over that time period is summary enough — and came in small installments. Moore last qualified for the ERA title in 2017 and threw just 10 innings in 2019 and 2020 put together.
But like so many other relievers, Moore has found new life after reinventing himself as a one-inning reliever:
Matt Moore’s Bullpen Transition
Once again, he’s bounced around, but that’s not really his fault. Moore was part of the doomed and panicked last-ditch effort to get the Angels to the playoffs before Ohtani packed his bags. It didn’t work, which might be less Moore’s fault than any other person in the organization other than Ohtani himself: Moore was 4-1 with a 2.56 ERA in 44 relief innings for the Halos. Knowing that a long-shot attempt to make the playoffs would do more than any fire sale if it kept Ohtani around, the Angels did not unload Moore at the trade deadline.
Within a few weeks, it was obvious that the Angels were not going to make the postseason, and Moore was set adrift on the waiver wire in the Angels’ attempt to avoid paying the competitive balance tax. He, along with Lucas Giolito, washed up in Cleveland, where the former top pitching prospect in baseball performed well. (Moore, not Giolito. I should have been more specific.) But that stop lasted less than three weeks, as the Guardians also realized they weren’t going to make the playoffs. So Moore was waived again, making four scoreless appearances for the Marlins, who did make the playoffs after all. But having joined the team too late to qualify for the postseason roster, Moore did not play in October. (It’s okay, neither did the Marlins, if we’re being real.)
Despite Moore’s convoluted travels last year, he’s ended up right back where he started. Like Diane Keaton in Reds. Except Moore’s not with the Reds, he’s with the Angels.
So what has $9 million — barely enough to cover what Moore surely spent at the U-Haul store last September — bought? Well, as you’d expect in a transition to the bullpen, Moore’s fastball velocity has played up, from around 92 as a starter into the 94 mph range as a one-inning reliever. He’s pared down his repertoire as well, junking his cutter and sinker to concentrate on his four-seamer.
But the key to Moore’s success is his changeup, which is legitimately one of the best in baseball. It’s a mid-80s offering, almost exactly the same velocity as his curveball, but instead of breaking down, it breaks arm-side with very little drop. Last season, opponents hit .163 with a .188 wOBA off Moore’s change. Righties had a higher wOBA against Moore’s changeup last year than they did against Ohtani’s sweeper.
Now, without Ohtani in the lineup, one wonders how many meaningful leads Moore will be able to protect for the Angels in 2023, or if this contract is merely a holding pattern before he gets dealt to a contender at the deadline. Certainly he’s learned how to pack efficiently by now.