TAMPA — Gray’s Disease?
Or do we go back to the condition’s beginning and call it the Curse of Ed Whitson?
Whatever insensitive moniker you choose, it’s real, virtually everyone agrees, and it’s awfully hard to prognose. And because the Yankees needed external reinforcements for their pitching staff, they’re banking on James Paxton avoiding the affliction that occasionally turns an accomplished pitcher into goo once he puts on the pinstripes.
“I watched it happen,” Paxton said Wednesday at George M. Steinbrenner Field, of Sonny Gray’s Bronx downfall last season. “I don’t have a whole lot of information on how that all went down for him. I don’t know him. I don’t know what it was, but I’m just trying to do the best I can — talk to guys who had success here, what they did to help [beat] it. I’m just learning from my teammates to help prepare for that.”
“Sonny was one of my close friends, so it was very tough for me to watch him struggle,” CC Sabathia said. “But A.J. [Burnett], too. A.J. was one of my close friends. I’ve seen a lot of people struggle. It’s just one of those things. Some guys, it’s a little tougher than it is for other guys.
“But I think Pax will be fine.”
If the Yankees knew precisely why some of their high-profile imports thrive while others fail, they’d never encounter headaches like Gray, who came over in a celebrated July 2017 trade with the A’s and put up a 4.51 ERA, including a ghastly 6.48 at Yankee Stadium, in 41 games.
Three days after the Yankees’ 2018 season ended with an American League Division Series loss to the Red Sox, general manager Brian Cashman proclaimed his desire to trade Gray, saying, “To maximize his abilities, it would be more likely best [for him to be] somewhere else.”
On Jan. 21, the Yankees traded Gray to the Reds for minor leaguer Shed Long, whom they immediately flipped to the Mariners for outfield prospect Josh Stowers and an extra 2019 draft pick.
With Gray’s crash heightening a need for experienced starting pitchers, the Yankees dealt pitching prospect Justus Sheffield and two minor leaguers to Seattle in November for Paxton, the left-hander who had established himself as the Mariners’ ace.
The 30-year-old at least acknowledges the elephant in his room.
“I talked to CC about it,” he said. “Actually, I talked to [Andy] Pettitte about pitching in New York. [Jordan] Montgomery. Quite a few people. ‘What’s the difference about coming to New York?’ What it takes, what to focus on, what not to focus on. It’s been really helpful.
“They just said the biggest difference — it’s the same as anywhere else — just the media and getting comfortable with talking to the media, making yourself available,” Paxton explained. “And just the amount of people there are. They said don’t get too wrapped up in reading the newspaper and all that stuff. Something I’m going to focus on.”
“I think it was a real thing,” said J.A. Happ, who pitched very well after arriving in a July trade from the Blue Jays and re-upped on a two-year agreement in December. “I look back on the three months there, and it was an amazing baseball experience, but it definitely was a stressful experience. … Every game I felt like was a big game. I felt like we were playing must-win games all the time.
“And that was fun. I always say that’s what you’re looking for. But it definitely was stressful, but I think part of thriving in New York was trying to embrace that, or at least understanding that’s the expectation.”
At 6-foot-4, Paxton carries a towering presence, and he brings a great nickname, “The Big Maple,” reflecting his Canadian roots. He looks and sounds like the type of guy who should beat this. Then again, so did Gray, who started a winner-take-all ALDS Game 5 as an A’s rookie in 2013 and received myriad endorsements during the Yankees’ due diligence.
Asked if he thought he could learn anything from Sonny’s swoon, Paxton said, “I’d rather focus on the positive than the negative.”
That’s probably a good place to start as the Yankees try to avoid this Big Apple disease and cure their nine-year run without a parade.
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