After an uneventful week at the Winter Meetings, the Indians have finally landed their man, snagging former Brewers closer John Axford. Over the past few weeks the Indians have been going after most of the possible closers remaining on the market including Ed Mujica before he signed with the Red Sox, Joaquin Benoit and Fernando Rodney. While Axford was at the bottom of the list as far as 2013 results are concerned, the other closers listed as well as Grant Balfour are likely to go for a much steeper price, likely out of the Indians range. Cleveland was closest in competing with San Diego for Benoit, but was unwilling to add a third option year to a likely $14M deal, leading Benoit most likely to become a Padre in the near future.
The deal is for $4.5 million and will only cover 2014, considerably less than the other options listed or the amount Chris Perez would have earned in arbitration. There is also an extra $1.75M to earn based on incentives. To this point, the Indians were looking at internal options, but were not happy with how diminished the bullpen would be if Cody Allen or Bryan Shaw had been used as closer. As it stands, Axford will likely close with Shaw and Allen being his primary set-up men. Vinnie Pestano and C.C. Lee could also be used in the back-end of the bullpen depending on how they recover from 2013.
Axford has had a bumpy road through the Majors so far, playing in just five seasons despite being 30 years old (he will be 31 by the start of next season). He was drafted twice, but didn't sign, instead joining the Yankees as an amateur free agent. Before making it to the pros, he was released and signed by Milwaukee. It was there he made a name for himself as a Major League closer, saving a league high 46 in 2011 and 106 games overall for the Brewers. All but one of those saves came during a three year span from 2010 through 2012.
Over his first three seasons, he held an ERA of 2.26 with 71 saves and 171 strike outs in 139.1 innings. After that, things started to fall apart. In 2012, despite saving 35 games, Axford allowed an ERA of 4.67 and allowed one more base runner every three innings. In 2013, he pitched for his home country of Canada in the World Baseball Classic and, like Pestano, went on to struggle for the rest of the season. He did seem to find himself after joining the NL Champion Cardinals in a deadline deal, but it was only for 13 games (1.74 ERA, 11 K's) and was only used in 7.2 innings in the postseason. Those innings were impressive, however, as he gave up just a single run and two hits in the six games.
Only time will tell if he will be able to turn things around for good with the Indians, but he has as good a chance as any available pitcher and will likely be much cheaper. He did allow an incredibly high .346 BABIP in 2013, so for those who believe in luck, Axford's can only get better. The Indians didn't need a long term closer for the future. They already have at least one between Cody Allen, Vinnie Pestano, C.C. Lee, Trey Haley and a number of other minor leaguers, but none of those is ready at the moment. Axford seems to be a safe signing that will allow the Indians to feel good about the late innings without committing all their off-season spending to a single reliever. At worst, he will give time to Allen and the others to hone their craft for a few more months before they are thrust into the closers role. At best, he will become the pitcher he was in his prime (with no WBC to throw him off) and will make the Indians forget about that other guy, the one who was always raging about something or other.
Axford played for team Canada, the Brewers & the Cardinals in 2013.
In 2014, he will be all Tribe.