As Jim mentioned in his article, John Axford is a better closer than most people believe. I noticed that there is a healthy skeptical sentiment about closers among Milwaukee fans — don’t give closers long-term deals, because closers implode or don’t add up to their early potential. This happens frequently — even previous marquee closers such as Brad Lidge, Joe Nathan, Jonathan Broxton, etc., had their ups-and-downs.
But, that shouldn’t mean that the Brewers should abandon plans to buy out some of Axford’ arbitration. Why, you ask? Well, Axford could potentially destroy other closers by the time he reaches arbitration.
Thanks to FanGraphs, I looked at a group of closers with 50+ saves from 2009-2011. I then used BaseballProspectus and Cot’s Contracts to determine their first arbitration and salaries (or extension/contracts signed to avoid arbitration). I accumulated their save totals prior to those contracts. Here’s what we find:
(**note that Joe Nathan’s second contract was signed approximately a year in advance, so it projected service.)
One of the reasons Axford stands to make a lot of money is that he spent relatively little time behind another closer. Basically, he took the closer’s role in 2010, and exploded in 2011. As a result, even though his service time is basically extended for 7 total years in Milwaukee, meaning that he has 5 years remaining with the Brewers, he will stand in the top service percentage of his class, likely qualifying for 4 years of arbitration (someone correct me if I am wrong about this, but I believe Axford is indeed on track for a super-two hearing).
By that time, Axford already stands to challenge Jonathan Papelbon and Bobby Jenks, meaning that the Brewers will have to shell out between $5.5 and $7 million during Axford’s first year of arbitration.
If Axford stays on pace, he stands to make a boatload of money during his time in Milwaukee — my arbitration guesses have him earning approximately $37 million over the next 5 years. Judging from arbitration-to-free agency buyouts signed by Joe Nathan and Brad Lidge, Axford’s first year of freedom also stands to be worth at least $11 million (probably more thanks to Jonathan Papelbon’s contract).
If you’re keeping track, a true extension, where the Brewers landed Axford beyond his arbitration years, would net Axford approximately $50 million over 6 years.
Now, Axford probably isn’t going to actually make that much with an extension. Ryan Topp said it best to me the other evening — if Axford nets an extension into free agency years, that long-term security will probably result in some money skimmed off the total amount.
If we start at 80% of Axford’s projected 6-year worth, that starts us at 6/$40.
Of course, if you’re keeping track of Axford’s career by that 2016-2017 offseason, you’ve already said in your head, “Duh, Zettel, so you’re gambling that Axford is going to be one of the very best active closers in the game.” For, if Axford stays on his current pace, and remains healthy, he could be a good candidate to accumulate more than 270 saves prior to free agency. That immediately places him at top closer status.
What if we want a lower gamble? Well, even if you’re one of the Brewers fans that thinks Axford will eventually implode — meeting the fate of many fine relievers — it’s still a good idea for the Brewers to preempt some of those arbitration years.
If Axford hit arbitration today, he’d be worth approximately $3.5 to $4 million. Adding the inevitable Papelbon/Jenks money, and we’re at $10 million. Now, if Axford simply agrees on one-year terms with the Brewers, he probably won’t touch $3.5 million whatsoever for his 2012 contract.
Here’s where the Brewers gain an advantage in a short-term contract.
If the Brewers give Axford a significant 2012 raise, they can effectively preempt Papelbon money. So, if we assume Axford is worth approximately 2/$10 million through arbitration already, the Brewers might preempt that league-minimum renewal for 2012 by giving Axford a healthy raise — start negotiations at 2/$7.5 for 2012 and 2013.
Then, Axford hits arbitration for 2014, 2015, and 2016; if he stays course, he’ll probably stand to make $30 million over that time, and really, the Brewers haven’t necessarily saved any money. But, does that really matter if, in that scenario, the club obviously gets to keep an elite closer that probably helps the club win a lot of close ballgames?
3- or 4-year extensions, in this case, would balance the risk between the Brewers and Axford, perhaps further lowering the cost, while giving Axford slightly longer-term security. Here, the Brewers might start with 3/$15 or 4/$24 bases for Axford. Again, these deals don’t look like they’re saving the Brewers a lot of money, but by the end of this exercise, we should all be wondering whether the point of an Axford extension is to save the club money, or to avoid potential scenarios where Axford makes record-setting arbitration settlements.
Resources: BaseballProspectus, FanGraphs, and Baseball-Reference.