Not everyone who reads this site is on Twitter. I wouldn’t even dare put a percentage of Wahoo backers who actually engage on Twitter, but it is still a good barometer on the pulse of the fan base. Over the weekend, I noticed a lot of angst amongst Tribe fans after the winter meetings ended without any sort of big roster movement. Sorry, I don’t count adding AAA roster fillers David Cooper and David Adams as needle movers.
However, as I pointed out on Twitter, everyone need to take a deep breath and relax. Think back to last year at this time. Nick Swisher was still more than a week away from becoming an Indian. His actual contract wasn’t signed until January 3. Michael Bourn didn’t join the wigwam until a few days before Spring Training in February. Left-handed starter Scott Kazmir didn’t sign his minor league deal with the Tribe until December 21st of 2012. Even noted bust Brett Myers hadn’t joined the team until after the first of the year. Mark Reynolds’s one-year, $6 million deal was inked December 18.
See a pattern here? Sans the steal of all steals – the Mike Aviles and Yan Gomes for Esmil Rogers trade – not one major move was made until the rest of the dust had settled on the free agent market. It is what Chris Antonetti and his staff do. They let all the major chess pieces move, gather as much information as they can, then survey the rest of the board to see where their cards can be played.
In Orlando last week, manager Terry Francona reiterated his stance that he loved the way Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw handled their late inning roles down the stretch and he preferred to keep them where they are. Team President Mark Shapiro gave a radio interview to SiriusXM’s Jim Bowden where he told the former Reds GM that the team would sign a bullpen arm with closing experience in the near future. Shapiro also said that his biggest concern is still the team’s starting pitching, but that it is “always a concern” of his. Most of the starting pitchers the Indians had been linked to – Kazmir, Bartolo Colon, Tim Hudson to name a few – have signed their deals elsewhere.
Joaquin Benoit, former Detroit Tigers closer, was said to be linked to the Indians and the San Diego Padres. The rumors had the Tribe in the two-year, $14 million neighborhood, but that the Padres may be offering a third year vesting option. Knowing how Antonetti operates with reliever contracts, it was not a surprise that he wouldn’t want to add the extra year. As of last night, it looks as if the Indians have moved their attention towards John Axford.
Of the four remaining non-Chris Perez closing options on the free agent market, Axford is easily the least appealing to me. He is also the most inexpensive. Fernando Rodney and Grant Balfour are looking for the most money and deservedly so. Benoit may be getting three years from the Padres. This put Axford squarely in the Indians wheelhouse.
The Good: The right-hander spent two seasons as the Milwaukee closer and during the 2011 season he was particularly dominant, saving 46 games with a 1.95 ERA. That was his first full year pitching at the end of games. Between 2010, where he took over the ninth inning mid-way through the campaign, to 2012, Axford converted 70 saves in 75 chances with an ERA of 2.19. His K per nine during those three years were exactly what you want from a closer: 11.8, 10.8, and 12.1 respectively. After losing his job in Milwaukee and being dealt to St. Louis last season, Axford pitched well. In 13 appearances, he allowed just two earned runs in 10.1 innings (1.74 ERA). He struck out nine in five and two-thirds innings of playoffs work. When peaking, John throws a high-90s fastball which he heavily relies on.
Most importantly to the Indians, Axford will more than likely be on a one-year deal and under club control for three more seasons. In other words, should Axford find himself under pitching coach Mickey Calloway and become a top notch closer again, the Indians will have plenty of options with him going forward. If he turns out to be a bust, the Tribe can simply do what they did with Perez – let him walk away for nothing. The cost of his contract, which is still unknown at this time, is going to tell us a lot. I can’t imagine it will be more than $5 million.
FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal reports on Monday afternoon that Axelford’s one-year deal is worth $4.5 million plus incentives.
Will the extra money unused on a high-end closer and the first round draft pick tie-in help the Indians somehow steal back Ubaldo? I don’t think it is likely, but the longer Jimenez sits out on the market, the better it is for Antonetti.
The Bad: Antonetti seems to be putting his eggs in the basket of a guy who is coming off of close to two seasons of big time step backwards. Since 2012, he blew 16 of his 51 save chances, posted a ERA of 4.35, and watched his strikeouts go down and his walks go up. His hits per nine innings also went from under eight to over 10. Essentially, Axford regressed in every statistical category in 2012 and 2013.
Axford is a fly ball pitcher, always a scary proposition for a closer. In his last full season as closer for the Brewers (’12), the Canadian averaged 5.1 walks per nine innings. Not good. While everyone around here was scared to death that CP would walk guys and give up big homers, Axford was mirroring what Perez was doing. He allowed 10 homers in each of the past two seasons. Perez gave up six in 2012 and 11 last season.
For you sabermatricians, Axford’s 2013 BABIP (batting average of balls in play) was a horrific .339. Some will tell you that is just “bad luck.” These same people will tell you that new platoon right fielder David Murphy also suffered “bad luck” in 2013 when his BABIP was .227. For Murphy, you could say it was his one off year as his BABIP in the three prior seasons was .324, .299, and .333. But Axford’s numbers since early 2012 point towards an over decline.
Among 221 pitchers with 250 IP since 2010: Axford’s GB% ranks 76th-highest. FB% ranks 109th-highest.
Both not terrible. But again, not ideal for a closer1.
Moreover, The Cardinals, perhaps the model franchise in pro sports, allowed Axford to walk with three years of control left on his deal. Yes, they have a pen loaded with options, but even still, you don’t just drop pen arms for nothing if you think the guy can still bring it for you. Usually, the Cardinals don’t make mistakes. Then again, Marc Rzepcynski was a Cardinals cast-off. He pitched well for the Tribe after coming over at the trade deadline.
My view: Bringing Axford into close is certainly more of a risk then going to Benoit, Balfour, or Rodney. But he also brings the most upside. Calloway’s work with Kazmir and Jimenez cannot be undersold. If he can spin his magic once again on Axford, then the Indians pen could once again be in business with Allen, Shaw, and Rzepcynski handling the late innings in front of him. The hard-thrower will be relatively inexpensive compared to the other free agent options and is under club control through 2016 so I understand the attraction. With that said, I just am not a fan of his.
I see a guy who looks a lot like Perez, another high-wire act who can come up with the big strikeout when you need it but also loves putting runners on base. Besides the big time regression since the middle of 2012 where he went from an indispensable part of the Brewers bullpen to traded to non-tendered, the propensity to give up the long ball worries me a ton. Nobody here wanted Perez back, yet he may have just returned with a better mustache and beard.
I hope I am wrong, but I just worry that the Indians are banking on a guy on the wrong side of his career to resurrect himself on the fly. Ironically, the key to the Tribe’s ultimate bullpen success may lie with another guy who is coming off a poor season – Vinnie Pestano. Had Vinnie not put himself in this position in 2013, he’d be closing this upcoming season at a low contract figure, giving the Indians more money to play with in other places.