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Axford the Next to Close in Cleveland

Axford the Next to Close in Cleveland

| On 17, Feb 2014

The Cleveland Indians open the 2014 season with new expectations despite many questions. The Indians’ 25-man roster will look different than the group that won 92 games and lost the American League Wild Card game to the Tampa Bay Rays. While the roster may change and the expectations grow, Cleveland will need to answer many questions this spring before opening the season in Oakland on March 31. Today, we look at one of the Indians’ new players who will be trying to fill a role on the Tribe’s roster.

Heading in to the 2013 season, the Cleveland Indians bullpen was considered the strongest foundation of the ball club, anchored by returning closer Chris Perez, setup man Joe Smith, and arms Vinnie Pestano and Cody Allen, with a handful of veteran Major League relievers as new faces in the clubhouse.

A few weeks into the season, definitive cracks appeared in that foundation and the bullpen no longer appeared capable of supporting a questionable starting pitching staff that was thought to be playing above its real value. Injuries, ineffectiveness, pending contract statuses, and other outside factors created a scenario in which the Indians would need to rebuild their one-time strength in the offseason. Big and established veteran names were available via free agency, including Joe Nathan, Fernando Rodney, Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour, and lesser names with closer experience like Edward Mujica, Brian Wilson, and Fernando Rodriguez.

Few in Cleveland expected the ball to bounce to free agent pitcher John Axford.

After the team chatted briefly with some of the available options, the team signed Axford in December to a one-year contract for $4.5 million, with incentive escalators that could allow him to earn as much as an additional $1.75 million.

Axford had been non-tendered by the St. Louis Cardinals at the beginning of the month. With several younger and inexpensive closer and bullpen candidates on the roster, the Cardinals were unwilling to enter the arbitration process with him and instead elected to cut ties.

It was not smooth sailing for the Canadian born Axford through most of the 2013 season.

He started his fifth Major League season as Milwaukee’s closer for the fourth year. It did not take long for Axford to run into trouble. He entered the ninth inning of the first game of the season against the Colorado Rockies with a 4-3 lead and struck out Chris Nelson and Eric Young Jr. swinging on 3-2 pitches. The first pitch to Dexter Fowler was driven to deep right to tie the game. Axford settled in to strike out Josh Rutledge swinging, but the damage was done. The Brewers would come back to win the game, 5-4, in the bottom of the tenth.

Two games later, the Brewers called upon him in a non-save situation. With his team down 4-3 in the top of the ninth, he allowed a single before Michael Cuddyer homered to make it a 6-3 game. After retiring a batter, Fowler got him again with a blast down the right field line to rip the game open to its final score, 7-3.

In his next appearance, he entered the game in the tenth inning of a tie ball game and gave up another home run, this time a two-run blast to Arizona’s Eric Hinske, and was charged with the loss. Brewers manager Ron Roenicke replaced him in the back end of the bullpen with Jim Henderson, who promptly saved the first opportunity he was given. It was the second time in his career that Axford had lost the closer duties.

In his fourth outing while pitching in the eighth inning, he gave up a double, a sacrifice bunt, and a pair of walks before being removed. Inherited runners scored, giving him a 24.30 ERA through his first four appearances.

Pitching in less stressful situations, Axford settled in, allowing just one earned run over his next eight appearances to wrap up the month. May started off rough, as he allowed five earned runs in his first five games of the month and was charged with a loss and a pair of blown saves, but like in April, he settled down and did not allow another run in his final ten appearances of the month while striking out ten batters in nine innings.

He continued to be more effective for the Brewers into June, when he made 12 appearances and worked ten and two-thirds innings of scoreless baseball. He struck out ten, walked just two, and allowed five hits out of 38 batters faced (.143 average). In a 32 game span from May 15th through July 24th, he allowed just one run to score (0.32 ERA) and surrendered 18 hits and 11 walks in 28 innings. Just as well, he seemingly had eliminated the early long ball problem that plagued him in the team’s first two series of the season.

At the end of July, inconsistencies flared up again and Axford struggled. He allowed earned runs in six games out of an eight-game span, including a pair of home runs, his first allowed since May 1st. After a three-game groove in which he pitched four scoreless innings and allowed three base runners, but struck out none, he was shelled with a loss after allowing three earned runs and a pair of home runs in Cincinnati to the Reds. After one final appearance with the Brewers, he was dealt to the rival Cardinals for a player to be named later, announced two days later as reliever Michael Blazek.

When Axford got to St. Louis, he met with his new coaches who quickly informed him that with many years of scouting him as a member of a division rival, that they had discovered he was tipping his pitches. There may have been some validity to their statement – the Cardinals were among the teams he had pitched the worst against in many categories, including walks, runs scored, and on-base percentage, but was almost one of the teams to see him the most frequently.

Axford shared in a story for the National Post on January 12th, 2014, that he made “one little adjustment” in his delivery, which may have helped him throughout the rest of the season in St. Louis.

Thrust into a pennant race in St. Louis, Axford became a heavily utilized member of the Cardinals bullpen. He made 13 appearances, finishing three games. He pitched ten and one-third innings and allowed two runs (1.74 ERA). Eleven of the 44 batters he faced reached base with a hit, but no ball left the yard on his watch.

His efforts earned him a spot on the Cardinals roster for the postseason and he made two appearances in each of their three series. He allowed one run on a home run to Adrian Gonzalez in the eighth inning of the Game 5 loss in the National League Championship Series to Los Angeles. He made two scoreless appearances in the World Series.

Previously, Axford had held down the closer role in Milwaukee and had saved as many as 46 games back in 2011. That season, he finished with a 2-2 record, a 1.95 ERA, and was tied with Atlanta closer Craig Kimbrel for the National League lead in saves.

There was some belief that, in addition to tipping his pitches, Axford’s bad start to the 2013 season was due in part to his preparation for the World Baseball Classic. The same could be said about two members of the Cleveland bullpen last season in Perez and Pestano.

Say what you will about Perez, his on-the-field antics, his off-the-field exploits, and his injury history. When he was healthy and locked in, he was an effective closer. In four seasons with Cleveland, he saved 124 games, the third-most saves in the history of the franchise. Twice he represented the Indians at the Midsummer Classic. If all goes well, Axford will have plenty of opportunities to lock down the ninth inning for Cleveland in the coming season.

With the bullpen roles far less defined with the departures of Perez, Smith, Rich Hill, and Matt Albers, the Indians will need Axford to return to form and hold down the closer role. The instability of the roles of Smith, Pestano, Allen, and Bryan Shaw last season created turmoil while three of the four were used extensively in manager Terry Francona’s bullpen.

Axford, outside of a couple of bad stretches that could be explained for last season, has shown himself capable of doing the job and could do it for far less the cost of the other big name closers that were available this winter.

Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland.com