With the departure of Chris Perez, Joe Smith, and Matt Albers, the Indians’ bullpen has a few holes to fill this offseason. For a while now, people have been wondering whether or not the Indians would sign a closer (since there are so many on the market this winter) or promote from within. It was probably a given that they would add some arms this winter, but it was unclear whether or not they would turn to trades or free agency to do so. Even though the particulars haven’t been revealed yet, the Indians have signed former Brewers closer John Axford (who pitched out of St. Louis’s pen after a trade last season). It’s tough for me to fully form an opinion on this deal, since I don’t know the money and years involved yet. By all rumors though, it sounds as if it’s a one-year deal with a base salary on the low end (if you can call $5 million or below the “low end”). If this is true, than I’m satisfied with this deal for the most part.
Let’s face it, we can complain about the Indians and their tight-fisted ways until we’re blue in the face. It really won’t change anything. Plus the only time the Indians went out and gave a closer a larger contract, it didn’t end that well (remember Kerry Wood? I’d rather forget). Bullpen pitchers tend to be volatile from year to year, and they’re never a sure thing. I hate to waste a ton of money on relievers, when I think you can usually acquire guys for the bullpen at a bargain if you’re smart about it. That leaves you the opportunity to use your meager resources for the starting rotation and for the lineup, where it’s typically more difficult to put something together on a low budget.
Axford, like any closer (or really any reliever) has his pluses and minuses. On one hand, he had a terrible 2012 in Milwaukee and actually lost his job as their closer. He has control issues and fits of wildness from time to time. However, Axford has a fastball that averages about 95 mph and has pretty high strikeout totals. Even in 2012 when his ERA ballooned to 5.06 and averaged about 12 strikeouts per 9 innings. In fact, his K/9 ratio has been in the double digits for most seasons of his career. So with a decent fastball and swing and miss stuff, he could be quite successful if he masters his command (plus I trust Mickey Callaway to work with him).
The other big names still out there on the closer’s market are Grant Balfour and Fernando Rodney, and as good as they were the past couple of years, I just felt nervous meeting their demands. Balfour’s had an incredibly lucky BABIP over the past couple of years, and both Balfour and Rodney have had some less glamorous stats at times during their careers. I haven’t heard much about Rodney’s demands, but Balfour is supposedly holding out for a third year, at roughly $8-10 million per season. How many times have you heard someone say “Thank goodness that team gave that reliever an expensive, multi-year deal…it really paid off!” Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a case where it worked well for a team to give a closer or reliever a lot of money outside of Mariano Rivera. (Who defies all laws of physics and rational thought). Philadelphia is even trying to dump Jonathan Papelbon (the poster child for ridiculous closer contracts). It’s not worth it to pass out that kind of money, especially when you’re a small market team.
So I guess I’m saying that for what this is, I’m happy enough with the Axford signing. I’d rather the Indians spend their limited resources in other areas, and between Axford, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, and (hopefully) Vinnie Pestano, you have guys that can cover the ninth inning. The Indians haven’t made any of the flashy deals we’ve seen from other teams, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You can win the offseason and still do terrible during the regular season – just ask the 2008 Seattle Mariners, the first team to spend over $100 million but still lose at least 100 games. Plus remember that one of the Indians first big moves last offseason, the Nick Swisher signing, didn’t take place until just a couple of days before Christmas. While the Axford signing isn’t earth-shattering, I don’t think it’s a bad move all things considered. Sometimes you can win the offseason just by avoiding the stupid moves your opponents may make.