John Axford latest in line of flash-in-the-pan Brewers closers

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Tom Haudricourt, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Sunday, September 1, 2013

They arrive unheralded, seemingly out of nowhere, streaking across the sky like a baseball comet, only to quickly vanish into the outer reaches of the universe.

Welcome to the role of major-league closer, Milwaukee Brewers style.

Mike DeJean. Dan Kolb. Derrick Turnbow. Salomon Torres.

And now John Axford.

Here today, gone tomorrow. Snakes shed their skin less often than Brewers closers go from top of the heap to garage sale.

No team has done a better job of creating closers out of thin air. Kolb had one career save when the Brewers signed him at age 28 at the start of the 2003 season. The next year, he set the franchise record with 39 saves.

Just as quickly as Kolb was shuffled off to Atlanta, Turnbow arrived on the scene as a waiver claim from the Anaheim Angels. Quickly becoming a fan favorite, Turnbow matched Kolb’s record in 2005, then began melting down the next season and was replaced by midseason acquisition Francisco Cordero.

In 2007, Turnbow was used as a setup man for Cordero, who set a club record with 44 saves. Cordero took that performance to the bank and signed a free-agent deal with Cincinnati for $46 million for four years.

The next year, Brewers general manager Doug Melvin took a one-year, $10 million flier on once-great closer EricGagne, who didn’t wait before turning to goo. He quickly was removed from ninth-inning duty and 36-year-old journeyman Torres took over as closer, performing well enough for the Brewers to snap a 26-year playoff drought.

Torres retired, so Melvin decided to see what future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman had left in his tank at age 42. Hoffman’s changeup remained magnificent in 2009 (37 saves) but he finally reached the end of his rope the next season, prompting manager Ken Macha to give Axford his shot.

Axford immediately took to the role, converting 24 saves that season before putting together a historic 2011 campaign that helped the Brewers claim their first National League Central crown. The “Ax Man” converted a franchise-record 46 saves, including a remarkable 43 in a row to end the season.

And what a story Axford was. Dumped by the Yankees after pitching in the low minors. Signed by the Brewers in a tryout camp. Close to pitching his way out of the organization with bouts of wildness before finally harnessing his high-90s fastball and knee-buckling breaking ball.

Then, like many before him, Axford started leaking oil. He pitched his way in and out of the closer’s role on multiple occasions in 2012, finishing with 35 saves but also leading the majors with nine blown saves. Axford began this season in the closer’s role but quickly was removed after surrendering a series of alarming home runs—the same problem he experienced the previous year—in the first week of the season.

This time, Axford would not get another shot at closing. Close friend and fellow Canadian JimHenderson took over, and when he was injured, Francisco Rodriguez—whose fate seemed linked with Axford over the past two years—began closing games with success.

When Rodriguez was traded to Baltimore, Henderson returned to closing. Axford was used earlier in games and appeared primed to bounce back strong when he reeled off 23 consecutive scoreless outings over one stretch. But, continuing a frustrating pattern, he lost it again in recent weeks and was used more often than not when the Brewers trailed in games.

Axford was 0 for 6 in save opportunities this season. Having dramatically increased his salary to $5 million in his first year of arbitration, he was profiling as a non-tender in the off-season. You can cut a player’s salary by only 20% while under team control and the Brewers weren’t about to commit $4 million to a reliever often relegated to mop-up duty.

So, when the St. Louis Cardinals showed interest in Axford to add to their bullpen for the playoff push, Melvin decided it was time to get what he could rather than see the popular right-hander walk away over the winter. The Brewers will receive a player to be named later while also getting some $890,000 relief in Axford’s remaining salary.

What makes closers flame out so quickly?

“I think it’s because everybody expects you to be perfect out there,” said Melvin. “It’s the only job in baseball like that. Nobody expects hitters to be perfect, or starting pitchers to be perfect. There’s a lot of failure in those roles.

“But you can’t have failure in the closer’s role. He’s expected to save every game. When he doesn’t, he gets chastised and booed. That’s what makes somebody like MarianoRivera so special.

“I always say that anybody can save 30 games. It’s the next 15 to 18 that are the tough ones. I don’t think it’s the pressure as much as having such a small margin for error. When the other team has a walk-off win, the closer is the only guy on the field who feels personally responsible.

“It’s an unusual role. I liken it to a placekicker in football. When he misses a kick at the end of the game, everybody says he lost the game. But they go through slumps, too. When a closer goes through a slump, there’s no patience. Everybody wants him out of there.”

Though a manager prefers one closer to go to every time, Melvin said it behooves a team to have multiple candidates for the ninth inning. After Axford was removed as closer, the Brewers had Rodriguez, then Henderson.

Melvin believes Axford can turn it around in St. Louis after making a deal within the division that admittedly made him nervous.

“I think their ballpark will help him a little bit,” said Melvin. “There was some risk in doing it.”

Axford, who had been increasingly hurt by home runs in recent years (20 in 2012-’13), has allowed 25 in the majors. Sixteen came at Miller Park and five more at Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park, two venues in which the ball flies. He has not allowed any in 16 career appearances at Busch Stadium.

The trend continues

Now we’ll see if Henderson can break the Brewers’ pattern of a closer coming out of nowhere, excelling for a brief period, then vanishing. He certainly qualifies as an unlikely candidate to save games, having spent 10 years in the minors before finally getting a shot in the majors last year.

This season, Henderson is pitching as a 30-year-old rookie. With a high 90s fastball and a slider he uses to keep hitters honest, he has done a remarkable job, converting 22 of 25 saves (all three blown saves came while pitching in the eighth inning as a setup man) and holding opponents to a puny .186 batting average.

Henderson has shown calmness under pressure and is able to do what most top closers do with games on the line—strike batters out (57 in 49 1/3 innings).

“It’s nice I can get back to that role and get in a groove again,” said Henderson. “That’s a big part of the ninth inning, getting a comfort level and groove again, just like when a hitter is seeing the ball well.

“You want as many save opportunities as you can get because that means we’re winning. You’ve just got to calm your nerves when you’re out there. The more opportunities I get, the more comfortable I feel out there. Those are the moments you have to try to thrive on.

“If you do bad, you’ve got to forget it. You have to try to reset after every outing and go out there fresh the next time. Be ready to come back tomorrow.”

Finding the right fit

With rookie outfielder Khris Davis showing he can be an offensive contributor at the big-league level, the Brewers already are mulling ways to get him in the lineup for 2014. The main issue is that Davis is considered primarily a leftfielder because of a below-average throwing arm.

The Brewers tried Davis at first base in instructional ball a couple of years ago and said it didn’t go well. If they don’t revisit that possibility, they’ll have to find a spot for him in the outfield.

In that regard, here are the two options: Move Ryan Braun, who has a stronger throwing arm, to right field, opening left field for Davis. Or move Davis to right field and live with his substandard throwing arm there.

Either move affects rightfielder NorichikaAoki, on whom the Brewers have a club option for ’14 for a mere $1.5 million. If Braun moves to right, Aoki would become either a bench player or possible trade bait over the offseason. If the right-handed-hitting Davis moves to right, perhaps the left-handed-hitting Aoki could still get playing time there.

A third option of moving Braun to first base seems a bit extreme at this point, asking an all-star player to try to learn a completely different position from the outfield.

“They’ve tried (Davis) at first base and it didn’t go well,” said manager Ron Roenicke. “I don’t know why. I really didn’t ask that much about it. But with what we’re seeing and if we continue to see this, we’re going to have some discussions about what we can do.

“He does a good job in the outfield. He runs down the ball well. I think I could put him in right field and not worry about it. The arm, it’s not a rightfielder’s arm. But how often does that really come up? It doesn’t come up enough to where you can’t put him out there and start him in right field for a few (games). You’ve got to look at it for a season.”

League of his own

The gap in pitching between the Class AAA level and the major leagues has never been greater. As Exhibit A, we submit Eugenio Velez, a journeyman infielder playing for the Brewers’ Class AAA Nashville affiliate.

Entering the final Saturday of the Pacific Coast League season, Velez had reached base in 33 consecutive games—the longest streak in the league this year. He had a 19-game hitting streak, during which he was batting .346.

Signed by the Brewers for Nashville in late June, the 31-year-old Velez was batting .363 with a .427 on-base percentage in August.

This is the same Eugenio Velez who went hitless in 2011 for the Los Angeles Dodgers, finishing the season 0 for 37. It was the most at-bats in one season for a non-pitcher without a hit, erasing the 0-for-35 mark by Hal Finney with Pittsburgh in 1936.

But it gets better. Toss in the nine hitless at-bats in which Velez finished the 2010 season with San Francisco and he went 0-for-46 overall, breaking the major-league record of 45 consecutive hitless at-bats established by Bill Bergen for Pittsburgh in 1909, then matched by Dave Campbell for San Diego and St. Louis in 1973 and the Brewers’ Craig Counsell earlier in 2011.

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