John Axford: $40 Million Man? | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

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.

Share Our Posts

Share this post through social bookmarks.

  • Delicious
  • Digg
  • Newsvine
  • RSS
  • StumbleUpon
  • Technorati


Tell us what do you think.

  1. Kyle says: March 2, 2012

    Great work. I was looking at possible first year arb salaries the other day and figured at least $4 million. Despite how good he is, I still have a hard time feeling comfortable with them going with long-term deals for a reliever.

    • Nicholas Zettel says: March 2, 2012

      Thanks for the kind words! I agree with you about the long-term deal, but the more I think about it, the less I think that either party has the incentive to go long term. Axford can take a simple arby buyout right now, with a raise for 2012, to get some cash up front, and he only needs to wait a year or two before he can demand/look for a Brad Lidge / Joe Nathan extension. He has the type of profile right now to make about as much money as any closer ever, if he keeps it up.

      As for the Brewers, aside from the obvious risks associated with signing a closer longterm, I don’t get the feeling that they lose anything by not signing Axford longterm. It’s already clear that he’s out front in terms of potential closer money, so it’s not like they’re really going to get a discount. Furthermore, what’s the worst that happens if he has a few arby hearings as an elite closer? The Brewers paying for an elite closer– if Axford keeps it up — doesn’t bother me as much as it would have years ago.

      • Andy says: March 2, 2012

        Personally, I think that Axford is just the type of reliever that you take a chance on. He has a fairly clean delivery, good command (for the most part), and relies almost completely on the plus fastball/hard curve combo. His third pitch, when he goes to it, is normally a change-up if I am not mistaken. That combination induces a lot less stress on his arm than say a slider-heavy pitcher (think K-Rod) or someone with a violent throwing motion (again, K-Rod). Just mechanically speaking Axford fits the bill of someone who will have a decade of big success in the majors.

        Personally, I would like the Brewers to sign Ax to a one year deal immediately. After that approach him about a 5 year extension: Buy out all the arbi years as well as one year of free agency. Offer Axford a big jump this in salary this season as part of the extension (say, 5 million), and then talk about a 5 year, 35 million deal for the remaining five years. Add in incentives, such as 1 million for 35 and 45 saves reach. That deal could top out as 6 years, 50 million if Axford performs like last year. And, for how dominant he was last year paying an average of 8 million a year is probably a hair below market value. The Brewers lock up a dominant closer for his prime years to have with this core group they have in the majors as well as young arms in the pipeline. Brewers then take out insurance in case of injury, and are as protected as they can be.

        Plus for Axford: In a game where one second can ruin a career he gets financial security that will last the rest of his life if he is smart. He will still be able to cash in on one more good, 30-40 million dollar contract when he hits free agency if he stays as good as he currently is.

        • Nicholas Zettel says: March 4, 2012

          That’s definitely a strong market deal. I think if the Crew were to offer that deal to Axford, he’d have a tough time turning it down.

      • John says: March 5, 2012

        Derrick Turnbow?

        • Nicholas Zettel says: March 5, 2012

          …with more strike outs, fewer walks, better SVO%, and better breaking ball.

  2. Ryan Topp says: March 2, 2012

    I’m gonna stick with what I said on the Podcast, maybe expanding it a bit. If they’re going to give Axford any sort of financial security at this point, he’s going to pay dearly for it. My 4 year, 10 million dollar figure seems a bit low, but I’m willing to guess there is no way they do the deal if it’s for more than, say 4/15. They may guarantee a 5th year, but I highly doubt it. And if he wants to guarantee salary now, he’s going to have to accept something at or below 1/2 of the value he can get in arby if he produces highly and waits. The Brewers NEED to get that sort of discount if they’re going to do this. Otherwise, it’s just insane.

    • Nicholas Zettel says: March 4, 2012

      I think the discount is more likely to happen if they go 5-6 years on Axford.

      The thing is, the earlier reliever arby buyouts show a standard rate — there doesn’t seem to be any discount in the Lidge, Nathan (3 times!), or Soria deals.

      If the Crew signs Axford short-term, anything approaching 4/$20 is a flat-out bargain.

  3. Kevin says: April 9, 2013



Websites mentioned my entry.

There are no trackbacks on this entry

Add a Comment

Fill in the form and submit.