In Mo We Trust (Again)

That’s the mantra and it’s served us in good stead in the past.  In Mo We Trust.

We wondered what John Mozeliak was thinking trading a prospect like Brett Wallace for a rental player like Matt Holliday.  We found out quickly that Mo knew what he was doing.

We thought he cut bait too soon with Colby Rasmus.  That flag out there in the outfield seems to indicate differently.

Whether small deals (Jim Edmonds for David Freese) or larger ones, Mozeliak has been pretty shrewd in what he’s given up and what he’s acquired.  One of the few flops I can think of in that regard was the acquisition of Pedro Feliz, but even then the cost (David Carpenter) was extremely low and I think that was more of an emergency thing rather than a “this guy’s going to turn it around” scenario.

So if Mozeliak is making this deal, there’s something that he likes about John Axford.  Let’s also stipulate that the front office and all involved have a ton more information about the players.  They probably know if there’s a flaw in Axford’s delivery or if he’s run into bad luck or if there are reasons to believe that he’d be a solid contributor in St. Louis.

On the face of it, of course, that seems a bit dicey.  After all, Axford has a 4.45 ERA on the season and, while he’s finished 13 games, he has no saves to show for it.  Axford, as we all know, has been a dominant closer in the past (over 40 saves two years ago) but isn’t the same pitcher now.  (If he was, the Cards wouldn’t be getting him for a player to be named later.)

Are there any positive signs to look for out of this?  Sure there are.  You can always find some positive things if you look hard enough.

First off, Axford just got done facing the Pirates and he worked a scoreless inning on Wednesday, striking out two.  His August ERA is high, but inflated mainly from the three earned runs (via two home runs) he gave up in Cincinnati the time before last.  Giving up home runs in Cincinnati’s bandbox is not exactly a sign of a major flaw.  The Cards are playing four games in Cincy and four in Colorado, so the team might need to carefully use him in those.  He’s a bit more of a fly ball pitcher (0.87 G/FB ratio this season) which might work in Busch and some of the other bigger parks (like Dodger Stadium, for instance).

Looking into his splits, one thing that stands out to me is that in save situations, he has a 6.52 ERA and an 0-4 record, but in non-save situations it’s 3.31 (and 6-3, but that’s irrelevant).  His K/9 and his K/BB are higher in save situations, which may mean he’s throwing harder in those settings, but he leaves it more in the middle of the plate.  Trying too hard to reclaim that closer mantle?  I don’t know.  I do know it’s very unlikely he’ll get any save situations in St. Louis.

The great thing about Twitter is that people smarter than you can tell you things you don’t know.  (While that sentence could be taken sarcastically, it’s not intended to be taken so this time out.)  Jeff from Future Redbirds was kind enough to point out what he thought were instances of “bad luck” for Axford this year.

 

You can follow that link to FanGraphs and check it out for yourself.  You’ll see that the HR/9 ratio is 1.65 this season, well above his norm.  Of course, last year it went over 1.00 for the first time, so the argument could be made that this is his career trajectory now as well.  His HR/FB rate (19.6%) is a notch above last year’s and way above 2010 and 2011.  Again, which is the real Axford?

Looking at where he’s given up his home runs this season, most have obviously come in Milwaukee, but other than that he gave up those two in Cincy, one at Coors (another not-friendly place to pitch) and one in LA (perhaps that Dodger Stadium remark above should be scratched….).

The biggest issue most people have pointed out is that his command isn’t as strong as you’d like to see it.  He’s walked 23 in just over 54 innings, which seems a bit high.  However, his BB/9 is 3.79, well off of last year’s 5+ mark and actually one of the lowest marks in his career.

Of course, that’s still not something to write home about.  For example, Trevor Rosenthal‘s BB/9 is 2.45.  Seth Maness 1.95.  Edward Mujica 0.47.  You don’t want to bring in Axford with the bases loaded or anything, that’s not what I’m saying.

What I am saying is that, even if the Cards can’t find a magic fix for him, Axford can serve a role in that bullpen.  He’s had some nice stretches this season (from April 13 to the All-Star Break, he posted a 1.78 ERA and struck out over a batter an inning) so it would seem the talent and ability is still there.  The Cards don’t need him to be a bullpen savior or a closer immediately.  Even if something happens to Mujica, most likely Rosenthal will take over that role.  I’d imagine that Axford will not pitch past the seventh until he shows some results in Cardinal red.

However, if–and I realize it’s an if, but I don’t think it’s completely unlikely–if Axford gets back to a fair approximation of his success in the past, look out.  You’d have power arms like Siegrist, Rosenthal, Mujica, perhaps Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha (if they aren’t starting, a whole different argument), you’d have a lefty specialist in Randy Choate, plus you’d have some other hard-throwing youngsters like Michael Blazek and Keith Butler down the stretch, who can get some outs on a regular basis as well.

Which means that, if the starters can’t go long, we could see another postseason like 2011.  Not to that degree, I don’t think, as I’d expect Adam Wainwright to go deep in all his games and Shelby Miller and Lance Lynn could easily have at least six inning outings, but if the pen is that strong, Mike Matheny would be able to pull Lynn before one of his bad innings completely snowballed and not worry about how the rest of the game is going to pan out.

Axford is a Super Two player, which means he’ll be eligible for arbitration for next season and is making $5 million already.  However, I don’t believe the intent is for the Cardinals to trade for him and just let him go as a non-tender at the end of the season.  If he tanks, sure, they could do that, but I’m betting Mo made this move with an eye on 2014 as well.  I mean, that’s what he does, right?  Assuming a return to form, it also allows Mo more flexibility in dealing bullpen arms in the offseason, something I expect that he probably will be doing.

I also expect that the talent cost was low.  There’s an idea floating around that it could be Ryan Jackson.  That wouldn’t be a major problem as it’s fairly obvious that Jackson isn’t going to be in the Cardinals’ plans until after every other shortstop option has been exhausted, up to and including seeing if Ozzie Smith might want to put on the uniform again.  There are a number of relief arms in the lower minors that could be tapped without making much of an impact on the Cardinal future.

This deal also falls into the Mozeliak pattern of bringing in quality people into the clubhouse.  Axford was lauded on his way out by the beat writers and bloggers as a guy that was “good people”, who would be a stand-up guy and take the heat if necessary.  The guy is a pretty involved guy on Twitter and really seems to appreciate the fans and their interest in him.  I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the veterans on the club let Mo know this would be a nice piece to have.

For more thoughts on this deal, you can check out Cardinals Fan in Cubs LandI70 BaseballDose of Buffa or Redbird Rants.  Plus Bernie Miklasz has his thoughts on the deal posted as well.  I have answered some questions for The Brewers Bar and posed some of my own, so I’ll put them up when I hear back.

  • http://bytefair.com/ Paul Graham

    I think Axford is a nice risk, if you can call sending over a cup of coffee for a recent 40 save guy a risk… He still throws hard and strikes guys out but seems like he’s the ultimate example of a guy needing a change in venue and coaching. He hasn’t been able to adjust well to his HR problem and who knows, with some different voices guys can turn it around.

    It’s good you isolated some luck factors in Axford’s game, that would lead you to believe that a simple change of venue could also swing the luck the other way and he could finish out the season in dominant fashion. Either way, it can’t be any worse than throwing Blazek back out there or changing the job descriptions for Wacha and Martinez every other day.

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