After releasing former closer Chris Perez at the end of the 2013 season, the Indians had a hole in their bullpen that needed filling. The team acted quickly and picked up right-handed reliever John Axford on a 1-year deal worth $4.5 million, which could grow to $6.25 million if incentives are met. It wasn't a blockbuster signing, but it did address a serious need. Too long were Tribe fans made to suffer in the ninth inning, when Perez would leave us chewing our nails off as he veered dangerously close to blowing saves (and near the end, often "succeeding" at that).
Now that the reins have been handed over to Axford, what can we expect? He didn't exactly enjoy a great amount of success in 2013. Take a quick glance at his numbers: a 4.02 ERA, zero saves all year after being booted from the Brewers' closer role just four games into the season, four games in which he surrendered 9 runs in just 3.1 innings of work, with 4 home runs providing most of the damage.
However not everything is what it seems. There are a few reasons his numbers don't tell the whole story, and there's evidence to suggest he was an unlucky man last year.
First of all, if you remove those first four games from Axford's 2013 numbers, his ERA for the season is a much more respectable 2.92. Some of those early season struggles may be attributable to his participation in the World Baseball Classic, which seems to have had a negative effect on his pre-season preparations (Vinnie Pestano can relate). His fastball had lost some of it's velocity after the tournament, averaging around 91-92 mph, way off his 95-96 mph heat from previous years. "Those four games, it just didn't feel like that was me out there on the mound," Axford has said.
Secondly, Axford was significantly better once he moved to the St. Louis Cardinals in late August. In 16 innings spread over the regular season and the playoffs, he posted a 1.69 ERA, including 20 strikeouts and just 7 walks, with only 1 home run allowed. Part of Axford's success in St. Louis can be credited to the Cardinals pitching coaches, who spotted a flaw in his delivery that enabled hitters to know what he was throwing. After making the necessary adjustment to correct the problem, Axford enjoyed a level of success he hadn't experienced for years.
It's true that his time in St Louis was short and we all know to be wary of the dreaded small sample size, but you have to admit the numbers are encouraging. Enough so that the Indians were convinced to bring him aboard and hand him the closer's role.
Despite Cody Allen possessing the skills to be a fixture in the Tribe bullpen, and looking like the team's closer-in-waiting, Axford is set to see the bulk of late-inning action in 2014. He brings some of that veteran leadership the coaches and managers love to talk about, and if he can pitch at a level similar to what he produced for the Cardinals, we'll finally have a reliable and steady presence in the 9th inning. With all due respect to Perez's many saves, I think it's safe to say the outcome very rarely felt in the bag the last 2 or 3 years. Axford also has the potential to stick around should he prove effective, since he's still arbitration-eligible for 2015 and 2016, potentially keeping him on the club for some time without an extended commitment.
Axford has only been with the club a short amount of time but he's already establishing himself as one of my favorite players. He comes across as a very down-to-earth guy and has a clever, witty social media presence (unlike our former closer). Plus, nobody can dislike a guy who rocks the high socks and has interesting facial hair.