John Axford – A Calculated Risk

John Axford

John AxfordNot 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.

Though they have yet to officially announce it and the terms of the deal have still yet to be known, the 30-year old Axford will become the newest member of the Tribe’s bullpen, more than likely as the closer.

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.

(AP Photo/Morry Gash)

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Footnotes:

  1. Tip of the hat to Jacob aka Jakey Stats Rosen []
  • mgbode

    i’ll start by saying the Cardinals make lots of mistakes in personnel, but they have such a wealth of talent in their farm system that it rarely matters.

  • mgbode

    Nobody here wanted Perez back, yet he may have just returned with a better mustache and beard.

    This statement pretty much sums up my feelings towards Axford. I wonder about Crain’s shoulder, but I’d have let the doctors give their opinion and he’d have been cheap-option1 if cleared.

    Regardless, Crain would sum up my approach to finding a closer. Take a look at the peripherals and try to find a cheap guy who should do well in short IP and sign a few of them. Bullpens are so fungible that you should be able to do better with that approach than giving free money to has-beens (Axford, Perez, etc.).

  • Adam Copeland

    Given his apparent regression the last couple of years, this certainly isn’t a particularly confidence-inspiring deal, but it certainly fits within the Indians value-hunting framework and I do think they’re keeping the door ever so narrowly cracked open on the small chance that they can use whatever remaining financial flexibility they have left to re-sign Ubaldo.

    I know that Tito wants to keep Shaw and Allen out of the 9th inning, but I hope that Axford isn’t just handed the closer’s job on a platter. The guy best suited for that job amongst the bullpen arms should have it (note I didn’t say best reliever, that guy isn’t always best suited for the 9th), if that requires a competition so be it. And as TD points out, the ultimate wild card here is Pestano. If he can rediscover 2011/2012 Vinnie, then plug him into the 9th and he’s your closer and Axford just gets added to the pile of back of the pen arms.

    In any event, as a fan of a team that has limited financial resources, I don’t want said team spending very much on bullpen arms, closers or not. Bullpen arms are one of the most fungible resources at the MLB level and there’s a growing list of horrid looking contracts that have been handed out lately to guys that are “proven” back end of the bullpen guys. The truth is, the best closers usually are home grown, and notwithstanding Axford’s signing, the Indians still may end up going that direction.

  • nj0

    The whole market is somewhat stalled at this point mainly because of Masahiro Tanaka. I expect that things will pick up once he decides what he’s doing.

  • BenRM

    Fun story: I was friends with John Axford in college. So I’m all for it!

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Yea they know how to draft!

    And develop!

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    There was a reason he only made 13 appearances for the Cardinals and that’s because they simply didn’t trust him. He stunk it up in Milwaukee got demoted and replaced but was still given some chances and all he did was give people whiplash from watching him allow homerun after homerun. But hey maybe he’ll rediscover what made him so good two years ago.

  • davelb87

    As I said on the article yesterday, I hate bringing in closers in free agency…committing money to relievers is playing with fire. The closer role is destined to be overpaid because of the premium placed on saves over holds and sabermetrics that better evaluate a reliever’s value (we can thank Tony LaRussa for this).

    That being said, the biggest plus of bringing in a closer is that Francona will be able to keep his best bullpen arms (Allen, Shaw, and Rzepczynski) in roles where they can be much more useful to the team’s success than they would be getting three outs in the 9th.

  • Steve

    Pestano, with his .803 OPS allowed vs LHH, may never be a 9th inning guy even if he does bounce back. It’s tough to overcome such an extreme split when teams can empty their benches in the 9th.

  • Steve

    I’d say the market moved pretty quickly. Most of mid-market SPs are snapped up.

    And I don’t really buy that everything’s fine because we signed guys so late last year. Swisher and especially Bourn hung around on the market for so long because there was little interest from other teams. If there’s still money laying around, and I’m thinking there may not be, what SP is out there that isn’t going to be crazy expensive? Arroyo, Maholm and that’s about it.

  • nj0

    No argument here. Things did move fast.

    My point was more in response to the comment that Jimenez is sitting out of the market. Most of the top-tier pitchers are doing so because of Tanaka. And I think things will start moving pretty quickly once he lands somewhere (or doesn’t). If people are holding out some hope that we land Ubaldo, it’ll probably only happen after that.

    I noticed that both Antonetti and Tito were very clear at the winter meetings that a starting spot is Carrasco’s to lose. Simple math makes me think that was their way of saying: don’t expect us to add another starting pitcher.

    My hope for a “major” move from the Tribe is through trade. ACab, Stubbs, something other…. But even that is a pipe dream imo. And I don’t see any of that landing us Jimenez or a comparable pitcher. It’s like 2007-2008 all over again.

  • nj0

    The other side of that coin: closers get rewarded big in arbitration, much more so than middle relievers.

    So while putting a guy like Allen (or whomever) in that role may seem cheap now, it means that they could be in line for a ridiculous payday down the line that we cannot afford.

  • Steve

    But we’re paying Axford $5M+ now, and assuming he’s as successful as we hope, even more the next two years. How much are we really saving?

  • nj0

    I imagine the strategy would be to let him walk and try to find the next Axford on the FA scrap pile. Or, if he’s good enough and there is enough demand, give him the arb number, trade him, and do the same. It’s not perfect, but that is true with a lot of what the Indians are forced to do.

    And I’m not saying I like it. Or that it’s the best approach. But it is the way of the world: closers going into arbitration will make a lot more than a comparable middle reliever.

  • Steve

    True enough on the SP expected to get big deals. I’m already writing us off as out of that though.

    I’m pretty confident that Stubbs will be moved, but I’m not holding out much hope that it’s for someone that can help much this year.

    I’ve written elsewhere about the comparison to 2007/08. I think it’s a bit different. I think Swisher/Bourn last year was our big splurge for a while. So while this team does need some help, I don’t think there’s any more cash to spend. The team obviously can’t count on increased attendance to increase the budget.

    From 2007 to 2008, the budget jumped by $17M just to keep almost everyone from a 96 win team around. And that team didn’t take a step back because they didn’t add anyone, but because Martinez, Hafner, and Westbrook all got hurt, and the bullpen from hell resurfaced.

  • Steve

    I’m with you, but I’m also sincerely asking. I get the idea of trying to game the salaries, but unless you can keep finding scrap heap FAs year after year, I’m not sure if you can save any serious money.

    The Rays seem to be the best at it, and they’re still paying $5M for whatever is left of Heath Bell. I wonder if it’s better to just take a bunch of young hard throwers, and burn through them, and pay the few extra bucks when you have to.

  • nj0

    Yeah, I was just being cynical, more than anything. But I expect the 07/08 comparison to become a pretty popular refrain in 2014.

    I wonder who, if anyone, will surprise from the minors this year. Outside of Lindor (who I don’t expect to see until 2015), I haven’t heard many names of possible contributors. To compete, we’re going to have to regularly add from within.

  • nj0

    Well, what I like about the Axford deal is that we will be able to get something for him if he turns things around. Short term, low initial investment, possible return… It’s got a lot upside, even though I don’t really see it coming to fruition.

  • mgbode

    I’m hoping for a bunch of minor moves and something sticking well. Probably not as well as Yan Gomes last year, but you never know what you might get. Hopefully, something at least as good as Kazmir.

  • Matt S

    While it’s true that Axford is very similar to Chris Perez (in fact, his #1 comp on baseball-ref is Chris Perez) in terms of recent disappointment and once dominant closing stuff, let’s also take time to note the differences between the two.

    Axford will be making half as much as Perez would have been if he wasn’t non-tendered, comes with none of the off-field drama, has two more years of club control after this one (Perez had none), and doesn’t have a declining fastball. While Perez’ decline likely had to do with his declining velocity and expanded use of his slider, Axford’s velo has actually *increased* in recent years. He has way more upside than Perez, for significantly less money.

    And at the end of the day, he’s on a one year deal. If he gets shown up by Capps, Pestano, Allen or Carrasco in the bullpen, you can just be rid of him. Just like we got rid of Brett Myers last year. So I’m on board.

  • nj0

    Last year’s “small” moves were as much (if not more) of a reason for our success than the “big” moves.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Tanka reportedly may stay one more year in Japan.

  • Jason Hurley

    If not, it’s the Matt Capps signing from last year for more money. You stow him somewhere else or release him.

  • nj0

    Call me when it is “did” or “did not”.

  • nj0

    The difference between two years of control we will have for post-2014. More I read about Axford’s stuff, the more I like the deal.

  • mgbode

    how about Shaun Marcum to a minor-league deal!!!!

    no risk, all potential reward. I like this signing and hope that he can be healthy for us.

  • Kildawg

    Officially on board with the Axford signing mainly because he’s under $5M/year cheap. Not counting the incentives since those aren’t guaranteed, plus he still has 2 arbitration years left. Twitter is fun and informative.

  • Kildawg

    You know Axford is on Twitter right? He might even follow you if you guys are still friends. Maybe he will show up with an awesome mustache in February.

  • left out

    marcum down for a bounce back season