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john-axford-mustachioThe Chicago Cubs have always been in the market for a late-inning reliever to whom they could offer the opportunity to close, and a new option may have popped up on Monday when certain arbitration-eligible players were non-tendered. That would be mustachioed reliever John Axford.

Not only does Axford check some superficial boxes for the Cubs, Patrick Mooney reports that sources say there is mutual interest between Axford and the Cubs. Mooney’s report includes some quotes from Theo Epstein on the state of the Cubs’ bullpen, and what they’d be looking for in a reliever in free agency. Give it a read.

As for Axford, you probably remember the dominant 2010 and 2011 seasons in Milwaukee, the down year in 2012, and the lost closer’s gig in 2013. He was shipped out to St. Louis at the waiver trade deadline in August, and he pitched very well in limited, low-leverage duty. He made $5 million as a Super Two in 2013, and, because of the rough waters in 2012 and 2013, non-tendered him was a no-brainer.

But, just because the Cardinals wisely determined that he wasn’t worth $6-ish million in arbitration doesn’t mean he’s not worth some kind of contract offer. Depending on what you’re getting …

Why did Axford perform so poorly the last two years (4.67 ERA in 2012, 4.02 ERA in 2013 (4.45 before the August trade))? Well, I could point to the normal “luck” indicators – Axford’s left-on-base percentage was abnormally low in 2012 (i.e., unlucky sequencing), and his BABIP against was abnormally high in 2013. But the real bugaboo for Axford has been the long-ball. In his two dominant years with the Brewers, he simply didn’t give up home runs – just 5 in more than 130 innings in 2010 and 2011. Then, in 2012 his HR/9 rocketed up to 1.30 per 9 (which is enormous), and his HR/FB rate was an absurdly high 19.2%. That latter figure usually regresses back to a more normal rate (average is right around 10%), but Axford’s fell just a couple percent in 2013, to 17.2%. Once again, you’d expect a regression (the good kind) next year.

But what about his stuff? Maybe he’s just way more hittable than he was before? Well, his strikeout rate in 2012 was normal (30%), but fell markedly in 2013 (22.5%). His walk rate also fell in 2013 (9%), and it looks like he was simply in the zone more in 2013 than in the past. His ability to miss bats in the zone fell slightly – combine those things, and you’re going to see the strikeout rate fall.

So does that mean he’s losing “stuff”? Well, hitters definitely feasted on his previously-effective fastball in 2012 (.369 wOBA against fastball) and 2013 (.362), but he didn’t really lose any velocity over that period. His changeup and his slider were just about as effective the last two years as they were before, so it’s hard to say the stuff has left him. Maybe he just needs to work on the pitch mix? Or maybe he was tipping his fastball?

In any case, on the right deal, Axford is an intriguing option. He’ll turn 31 next year, but physically, he’s a good risk. There are reasons to be optimistic about a bounce-back next year, and for a few million bucks, I’d take that chance.

Having fallen out of his closer’s job in Milwaukee, Axford could be keen on landing somewhere that he knows he’ll have a chance to close once again (why wouldn’t he?). On the plus side, that’s one thing the Cubs can offer Axford, given their theoretical opening.

If the Cubs really like Axford, he comes with a huge bonus: three years of control, regardless of the length of contract he signs. In other words, if the Cubs sign him to an inexpensive one-year deal, the Cubs can retain him via arbitration in 2015 and 2016 (with appropriate raises).

Also: mustache. That’s a requirement if you sign in Chicago, John.

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