SEATTLE -- Felix Hernandez has anchored the Mariners' rotation as the ace of the staff for the past decade, serving as the club's Opening Day starter for 10 of the past 11 years and establishing himself as one of the top right-handers in MLB.
But inevitably, times change, and as the Mariners head toward the 2018 season, left-hander James Paxton has emerged as the player most critical to Seattle's success.
Paxton had a breakout campaign in 2017, going 12-5 with a 2.98 ERA in 24 starts. He was inserting himself into the American League Cy Young Award conversation before a stint on the disabled list with a strained pectoral muscle in August stunted his production.
"The sky is the limit, really," Mariners manager Scott Servais said of Paxton's potential. "This is the step forward for James Paxton. I know people talked about it for a while, but you've seen the success, the confidence. Now, the health, we've got to keep him healthy the whole year and go from there."
Opposing batters posted a .223/.278/.324 slash line against Paxton last year, and he struck out 10.3 batters per nine innings. Paxton also prevented hard-hit contact at an impressive rate. Of the 139 pitchers who allowed 300 or more batted balls, he had the lowest rate of "barrel" contact at 2.8 percent.
Paxton's "hard-hit rate allowed" (balls with 95-plus-mph exit velocity) dropped from 40.9 percent in 2016 to 31.5, the second-largest percentage drop of any starter in baseball behind only Cleveland's Danny Salazar.
That is why Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto smiles when asked if there is a breakout year pending for the 28-year-old.
"It's important, but I feel like he kind of took that step," Dipoto said. "He was that guy last year. There are very few metrics you could look at where James Paxton isn't going to come back as one of the best pitchers in baseball."
Paxton's 136 innings last year were a career high, despite a series of injuries that have kept him from getting a full season of work.
The 6-foot-7 Canadian took a big step forward in 2017 when healthy, sandwiching overpowering runs in April and June around his first DL stint for a strained forearm. He was then rolling again, until his second DL stint with a strained pectoral muscle.
"Obviously, the goal for me is to stay healthy and get those 33 or 34 starts in a season," Paxton said. "So that's what I'm focusing on this offseason, finding a way to stay healthy for an entire season. Because that's what we need out of me."
Dipoto takes solace in the fact that none of Paxton's injuries have been shoulder or elbow problems that typically haunt pitchers.
"The issues James has had have been mostly soft-tissue stuff," Dipoto said. "They're not under-the-skin major injury issues that create month after month of time down. They're small things that generally add up. Some of that we thought might be altered by diet or some of the more progressive programs we've put in place with our new high-performance program. And he has been game for giving all of it a try.
"Because he knows how good he could be if he's out there and he's pitching the full allocation of starts or innings. If James Paxton goes out there and takes 30 starts, he's one of the best starters in baseball. There's no question in my mind."