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With Paxton trade, Yanks all in on staff upgrade

Swap with Seattle is first of many offseason moves for New York
MLB.com @MikeLupica

When it was all on the line for the Yankees in the postseason -- when they were even with the Red Sox at 1-1 in the American League Division Series and back home at Yankee Stadium, where they had won seven straight playoff games dating back to the 2017 AL Wild Card Game victory over the Twins -- the Sox had better starting pitching, and the Yanks couldn't make it out of the first round a year after coming within one victory of the World Series.

The Yankees' ace, Luis Severino, wasn't much of one in Game 3, and New York ended up losing, 16-1. CC Sabathia, who used to be their ace a long time ago, couldn't make it to the fourth inning of Game 4. So the Yanks began this offseason going for starting pitching, and they made a trade with the Mariners for James Paxton.

When it was all on the line for the Yankees in the postseason -- when they were even with the Red Sox at 1-1 in the American League Division Series and back home at Yankee Stadium, where they had won seven straight playoff games dating back to the 2017 AL Wild Card Game victory over the Twins -- the Sox had better starting pitching, and the Yanks couldn't make it out of the first round a year after coming within one victory of the World Series.

The Yankees' ace, Luis Severino, wasn't much of one in Game 3, and New York ended up losing, 16-1. CC Sabathia, who used to be their ace a long time ago, couldn't make it to the fourth inning of Game 4. So the Yanks began this offseason going for starting pitching, and they made a trade with the Mariners for James Paxton.

Video: Yankees acquire Paxton from the Mariners

Of course the Yankees are great at making big offseason headlines. Of course fans know that the Paxton swap is only the beginning as the team tries to be better than the Red Sox in 2019 -- not only did they watch the Sox clinch the AL East at Yankee Stadium, but they also watched them return a few weeks later and clinch the ALDS. The night it happened, Boston coopted the Yanks' home park theme song and sang "New York, New York" -- perhaps a dig at Aaron Judge, who had walked to the bus at Fenway Park blaring that same tune on a boom box after the Yankees had evened the ALDS at 1 game apiece.

The Yankees always want to beat the Red Sox. Now the Yanks want to taste victory even more than they did in the 2004 postseason, when the Sox came back from an 0-3 hole in the ALCS. You know the deal: Boston didn't just beat New York this year, even though the Yankees won 100 games. The Red Sox rubbed the Yanks' faces in it in both September and October.

The Red Sox were better, even if the Yankees hit home runs. One area in which Boston was demonstrably better was starting pitching, where they had two former AL Cy Young Award winners -- David Price and Rick Porcello -- and Chris Sale, who seemed to be on a Cy Young track before problems with his left shoulder hindered him this summer. The Sox also added Nathan Eovaldi at the non-waiver Trade Deadline, and by October, Eovaldi was as important a pitcher in Boston as Price.

Video: Paxton excited to join Yankees' pitching staff

So Yankees general manager Brian Cashman set out to find more pitching. Really, he has been looking to build a truly great rotation since the late 1990s. In '98, when the Yankees won 114 regular-season games and 11 more in the postseason, they had David Cone, David Wells, Andy Pettitte, Orlando Hernandez and even an effective Hideki Irabu. The next year, they added Roger Clemens to the mix. New York had a great rotation in 2009, the last year it won the World Series. But Sabathia was great, Pettitte was still Pettitte and the Yanks even got enough out of A.J. Burnett.

Clemens was 36 when he first became a Yankee in 1999; they brought him back later when he was 44. New York also brought in Randy Johnson, who somehow managed to win 17 games in 2006 with a 5.00 ERA. The Yanks brought in Kevin Brown in '04, when he was past his prime, and Javier Vazquez twice, in '04 and '10. They brought back Pettitte, with terrific results, in '07.

The Yankees brought in Jeff Weaver in 2002. They brought in Freddy Garcia in '11, when he was past his prime. New York traded for another Mariner, Michael Pineda, when he was supposed to be entering his prime. It traded for Sonny Gray in '17 and thought it had stolen a top-of-the-rotation guy. He ended up in the bullpen, and he is currently on his way out of New York. Then again, a lot of these guys were just passing through.

Video: Yankees pull off deal for James Paxton

Mike Mussina was one of the Yankees' best free-agent buys of all time, pitching through his original six-year contract and still being enough of a star pitcher to get two years on top of that. Masahiro Tanaka, despite right elbow issues, is 64-34 in his five seasons in New York, but he has started 30 or more games in a season twice. Paxton has had injury issues of his own, but the Yankees decided he was worth the risk -- and worth trading Justus Sheffield the best young starting pitcher in their Minor League system.

We have heard a lot about the Yankees' bright future since Cashman made all those Trade Deadline deals in the summer of 2016. But the Yanks are obsessed with beating the Red Sox now. Cashman started his pitching reboot with Paxton, and he is hoping that Big Maple is a starter who can be as good in New York as he was in Seattle.

"I don't have a new secret formula to address predictability on who will thrive and survive and who won't here in New York," Cashman said the other day.

Paxton won't be the last starter that Cashman will get this offseason. He will trade for another one (or two) or sign one as a free agent. The Yankees thought they could hit enough home runs and get enough big relief pitching to win last season. They couldn't. They got a starter on Monday, and they still need more. Stop me if you've heard that one before at Yankee Stadium.

Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com.

New York Yankees, James Paxton