John Axford and the Ever Continuing Search for a Closer


John Axford to the Indians Makes Sense

Among the needs of the Cleveland Indians this winter, none stands out more than the vacant role of closer on the depth chart. Of course, the level of importance we should place on this position in the Indians bullpen probably depends on your view of closers and their true importance to a baseball team.

If you spent any amount of time at all reading Ed Carroll and Steve Kinsella’s four-part series on closers (if you haven’t I encourage you to. It was fantastic), you would know that there are two prevailing schools of thought on the subject. The first is that out of all of the positions in the bullpen, the closer’s role is the one place where you should spend a little bit of money and have a defined role. The second is that paying any reliever an absurd amount of money is stupid. Relievers and bullpens are fickle and many do not perform consistently year to year. Instead it is best to develop the closer role organically throughout the year rather than spend large sums on one guy.

July 18, 2012; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Brewers pitcher John Axford (59) gets ready to pitch in relief in the fifth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at Miller Park. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

After being linked to some of the bigger names closer candidates on the open market – Grant Balfour, Brian Wilson, Fernando Rodney – the Indians now appear to be setting their sights on less expensive options. Case in point, the latest rumor has the Indians making an offer to John Axford.

John Axford spent 2013 split between the Milwaukee Brewers and the St. Louis Cardinals. Through August for the Brewers, Axford had posted a 4.45 ERA in 54.2 innings of work as a setup man. He was then sent to the Cardinals prior to the August waiver trade deadline and in 10.1 innings of work posted a 1.74 ERA. Along the way, Axford proved to be a valuable asset in the Cardinals ride to the World Series.

For the Indians,John Axford would undoubtedly fill the role of closer. After all, he has experience in the role from his time spent in Milwaukee. He ascended to the role of closer in 2010 and saved 24 games. In 2011, Axford became one of the most dominant closers in the game, saving 46 games in 48 chances with a 1.95 ERA and garnering both Cy Young and MVP votes. However in 2012 things went south. Axford saved 35 games, but was nowhere near as dominant. He posted a 4.67 ERA and each and every save seemed to turn into an adventure. With 9 blown saves he was eventually removed from the closers role and became a permanent setup man.

After finding his confidence and re-establishing himself with the Cardinals, it seems likely that any team wanting John Axford’s services will want him as a closer. Just based on the rumors surrounding him (the Orioles, Cubs, and a number of other teams are also interested) it is apparent that his 2014 will start off closing games for some team. The question is, though, how much will it take to acquire his services?

Oct 11, 2013; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher John Axford (34) reacts after retiring the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 11th inning in game one of the National League Championship Series baseball game at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

Axford was non-tendered by the Cardinals in an attempt to save money. Entering his second year of arbitration, it was likely that he would receive a raise from the $5-million salary he earned in 2013. MLB Trade Rumors projected that raise to be somewhere around $5.7-million. With the Cardinals plethora of pitching depth, they could afford to let Axford walk away rather than overspend. Meanwhile, a team like the Indians would jump at the chance to sign a potential closer for only $6-million, although that number is likely to rise given the number of teams bidding on his services.

There is an added wrinkle when it comes to signing John Axford, however. Due to his service time, any team that signs the right-handed Canadian reliever will control him through the 2016 season. Axford’s service time is just under four years, meaning he is not eligible for true free agency until after the 2016 season. For a team like the Indians that can not regularly afford to compete with larger market teams on a yearly basis, being able to sign a player of Axford’s potential with additional years of team control tied in is definitely appealing.

But again, the question is whether or not the Indians are willing to get into a bidding war for a player who has not been a regular closer since losing his job due to command issues more than a year ago. While Axford pitched well for the Cardinals down the stretch, he was by no means perfect for the Brewers. That uncertainty should give them pause before betting the farm on him for 2014 and beyond. That said, the Indians have shown a knack in recent years for finding diamonds in the rough, particularly when it comes to pitching. Could Mickey Callaway work his same magic with Axford in the same way he did with Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir? Maybe.

Oh and then there’s the facial hair factor. That cannot be overlooked.

All that being said, is John Axford worth the risk? If the Indians can get him for the right price, then absolutely. Axford was a once dominant closer who will turn 31 come opening day. With the amount of control they would have over him moving forward he could become not just a valuable piece to the bullpen but maybe even a valuable asset to have for future moves.