Indians sign Axford to one-year deal
Former Brewers closer to assume same role with Tribe
CLEVELAND -- The chance to close again was clearly an integral part of John Axford's decision to sign with the Indians, but it was not the only factor. There were similar opportunities elsewhere, so the pitcher did his research and determined that the Indians were the best fit.
Axford cited being closer to his home across Lake Erie in Port Dover, Ontario, mentioned the camaraderie in the Tribe's clubhouse and the fact that the club made the postseason again. The closer also said he engaged in a convincing conversation with manager Terry Francona.
"He was just very, very upfront with how he feels," Axford said, "how he felt about me, how he felt about the team, the city, the organization. All those things were very telling of a team and organization that I felt I wanted to be a part of."
On Thursday, the Indians made it official: Axford is their new closer.
Cleveland has been searching for an answer for its closer role since the final week of the regular season, and is taking a chance on Axford with the hope that he can rekindle his career as one of the game's elite stoppers. His one-year contract is worth $4.5 million with another $1.75 million available through incentives (based on games finished).
The Indians were in talks with Axford, along with a handful of other experienced late-inning arms, during the Winter Meetings last week. Cleveland's conversations with Axford gained steam over the weekend, with the pitcher agreeing to terms on Sunday night. A former closer for the Brewers, the 30-year-old Axford lost his role in Milwaukee and was traded to St. Louis in late August, finishing the season strong out of the Cardinals' bullpen.
The Indians also did their research, and determined that Axford is primed to return to his prior form.
"He still has an elite fastball and a very good secondary pitch," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said. "And he made some adjustments toward the end of the year last year when he got to St. Louis that got him back to being the pitcher that he was when he had all the success in Milwaukee.
"As we looked at a lot of information -- subjective information from our scouts, video analysis, analytics -- they all pointed to a bounce back after looking at the way he pitched in September. We thought it was the right guy to take a chance on, and we're confident that he'll help stabilize the back of our 'pen."
In order to clear a spot on the 40-man roster for Axford, the Indians designated Double-A reliever Trey Haley for assignment.
Last season, Axford posted a 4.02 ERA in 75 games (65 innings) between stints with the Brewers and Cardinals, piling up 65 strikeouts against 26 walks. The righty had a 4.45 ERA and was 0-for-6 in save chances in 62 games for Milwaukee, which dealt him to St. Louis on Aug. 30. Down the stretch, Axford posted a 1.74 ERA with 11 strikeouts and three walks in 10 1/3 innings.
Antonetti was quick to note that Axford's struggles out of the gates last year skewed his overall pitching line. Consider that the right-hander surrendered 31 percent of his earned runs (nine out of 29) and four homers in his first 3 1/3 innings (four games). In the 71 games that followed, Axford fashioned a 2.92 ERA with 61 strikeouts in 61 2/3 innings and six home runs allowed.
"After his first four outings, his results after that were actually pretty good," Antonetti said. "Once he stabilized after the first 10 days or so of the season, he pitched pretty well for the balance of the year and threw especially well at the end of the year and into the postseason."
Axford proudly pitched for Team Canada during the World Baseball Classic in March and -- whether gearing up for that tournament caused his early woes or not -- he was sitting around 92-93 mph with his fastball in those first four games. For the season, Axford averaged 95.4 mph with his fastball, according to Fangraphs.com.
"It could've just been a dead arm issue," Axford said. "Maybe I got ready a little too early. But my velocity was definitely down for the first few games. Something wasn't quite right with my arm. After those games were out of the way, my arm started feeling better and everything kind of clicked again for the rest of the regular season."
Axford's best season came in 2011, when he fashioned a 1.95 ERA and saved 46 games during the Brewers' run to the postseason. Across the 2010-11 campaigns, he had a 2.19 ERA in 124 games (131 2/3 innings) and a stellar 93 percent save rate (70-for-75). Over the past two years, though, Axford has posted a 4.35 ERA in 150 games (134 1/3 innings) with a 69-percent conversion rate (35-for-51).
Axford will step into the ninth-inning role after the Indians released their former closer, Chris Perez, on Oct. 31. Perez was eligible for arbitration this offseason, but he lost his job as Cleveland's closer in the final week of the regular season. In 54 games, Perez posted career worsts in ERA (4.33) and WHIP (1.43), making his expected salary (anticipated to be over $9 million) too inflated for his diminished role.
The Indians had expressed confidence in having either Cody Allen or Bryan Shaw assume the closing duties, but Francona indicated during the Winter Meetings that his preference was to keep the pair of right-handers in setup roles.
Landing Axford -- under contractual control through 2016 -- helps with that alignment.
"We feel that we've added an experienced power arm to the back end of our bullpen," Antonetti said. "John's a guy who's had a lot of success closing out games and pitching in leverage situations. We're excited to add him to the organization. We believe this will not only be a fit for this year, but potentially for multiple years."