On Thursday night, there were rumblings the Brewers were close to completing a trade that would send a mysterious reliever out of Milwaukee. Not even 12 hours later, the organization announced John Axford had been traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for a player to be named later (PTBNL).
Axford had been struggling for the second-consecutive season in Milwaukee. He owns a 4.45 ERA through 62 games (54.2 innings), and his sudden home run issues have escalated to the point he’s sporting a dismal 1.65 HR/9 home run rate. Among relievers who have thrown at least 50 innings this year, that’s the second-highest mark in Major League Baseball, behind only Health Bell who has a 4.21 ERA.
While the home runs have kept Axford from remaining consistently effective on the mound, a move to Busch Stadium in St. Louis could greatly help the right-hander. He will be moving from one of the most hitter-friendly parks in the league to one of the most pitcher-friendly parks — one that hasn’t ranked outside the bottom-third in HR factors since 2008, and even then, it only ranked 19th. Still below-average.
Moving to such a spacious venue could be exactly what John Axford needs to regain his confidence on the mound and become effective once again, and it seems that fact isn’t lost on GM Doug Melvin:
“He’s got a lot of years left in his arm. It’s tough giving up a 97-mph guy. … No doubt, that park will help a strikeout/fly-ball guy. There’s no doubt he gave up some cheap home runs [at Miller Park]. That’s what makes it tough.”
Consider this: Throughout his entire big-league career, John Axford has only given up four home runs at ballparks other than Miller Park and Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. Thus, outside two of the most hitter-friendly parks in the league, he’s done a stellar job keeping the baseball in the ballpark.
Staying in the NL Central, he will still have to pitch in Milwaukee and Cincinnati, but it will be interesting to see how pitching primarily in Busch Stadium will alter his production. It’s no guarantee that he’ll once again become a stud out of the bullpen. The command issues are still prevalent, and they’ve been even more pronounced in August. However, a strikeout guy w/ command issues can potentially work in St. Louis without the home runs. After all, that exact profile worked in Milwaukee in 2010 and 2011 before the home runs derailed his dominant stretch as the Brewers’ closer.
There’s no insight as to what the Brewers could be receiving in return for Axford. The Brewers included no cash in the deal — so they shed the contract — and will reportedly get a prospect in return. It’s not a “PTBNL or cash” deal, but considering Axford’s recent struggles and the fact he was likely a non-tender candidate this winter, the Brewers shouldn’t be expected to garner anything too exciting in return.
In some ways, getting anything in return for a reliever who was poised to (most likely) be non-tendered is decent business. I say “decent” and not “good” because it seems the Brewers had a chance to net something more significant back in late June and early July when Axford had strung together a beautiful stretch of appearances. Granted, the ultimate return in the St. Louis deal is pending, but it feels rather hollow to trade him for a PTBNL when he was tossed around as a legitimate back-end bullpen guy in June and early July.
Relievers are fungible assets, so it’s frustrating to see the organization sell Axford when his value is lowest, rather than a couple months ago, when he had actually built some tangible trade value. I’m not privy to front-office discussions — so perhaps the organization did shop him — but it feels like a sell-low move by the organization.
Ultimately, though, the Brewers moved an expensive non-tender candidate for something, but as I stated earlier, it’s far too simplistic to think Axford will simply pitch for St. Louis in September (and perhaps the postseason) and later be non-tendered. He has a chance to find success and become a cog in their bullpen for the next couple seasons. He could flame out, but he’s now in a position where his core skills can work — and because that place is St. Louis, many Brewers fans could become extremely frustrated if he bounces back with one of the organization’s biggest rivals.
Especially if he shuts down the Brewers in a couple high-leverage situations next month.