December 16, 2013
Another Smart St. Louis Signing, Another Typical Cleveland Closer
Reportedly agreed to sign RHP John Axford, most likely to a one-year contract. [12/15]
Back in 2010, when Boston's Daniel Bard was a dominant setup man and Jonathan Papelbon blew seven saves, some Sox fans looked forward to a time when Bard would transition to the ninth. Terry Francona was quite happy to keep Bard where he was. “When you have a guy that's not pigeon-holed into that closer role, oh, man, that's an unbelievable weapon,” Francona said late that season.
If it seems strange that a team as analytically oriented as the Indians would emphasize signing someone with ninth-inning experience—despite internal options like Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw, whose stats suggest that they’re capable of closing—consider Francona’s comments from last week.
On Cody Allen: “We used him in so many high-leverage situations. From the sixth inning on, we went to Cody against lefties or righties to snuff out a rally. He was so good at it and I think he would continue to get better. It’s hard to lose a guy like that.”
And on Shaw: “He could do it in the ninth, I have no doubt. But what he does earlier is valuable.”
Remember, this is largely the same front office that let Joe Borowski get 45 saves with a five-plus ERA, then start the following season in the same role. Since Mark Shapiro took over the team in 2001, the Indians closer club has contained a lot of okay but very little elite: Bob Wickman, Danys Baez, Borowski, Jensen Lewis, Kerry Wood, Chris Perez. Average out the seasonal lines of every Indians single-season save leader from 2001-13, and you get a 3.57 ERA, with an 8.0 K/9 and a 2.5 K:BB ratio. Yawn. Even in Perez’s first full season as closer, the Indians had four relievers who pitched more innings with lower ERAs.
That’s the way this works. The Indians always have a certified, capital-c Closer, but he’s normally not the best pitcher in their bullpen, and they don’t break the bank to get him. It’s not that they subscribe to the cult of the closer mentality—as Francona said, he has no doubt that Bryan Shaw could do the job—but they realize that some pitchers prefer the predictability of predefined, rigid roles, and they also realize that there’s some benefit to keeping a stud in a setup role, where they can use him more flexibly and keep his cost down.
So don’t look at the Axford signing as an endorsement of the importance of the closer role, or a vote of no confidence in Allen. If anything, it’s just the opposite. The Indians needed a late-inning arm to replace the one they lost when Joe Smith left, and it just so happens that most of those innings will be in the ninth.
Like all Indians closers, Axford is a second-tier type, a former NL saves leader who’s fallen on tougher times. As we wrote in last year’s annual, “As with most flamethrowers of his ilk, he’s likely to toggle from dominance to combustibility and back again for years to come.” In 2013, the Brewers got combustibility, then traded him to St. Louis at the waiver trade deadline. As I pointed out at the time, Axford’s velocity, which had been down at the start of the season, had recovered somewhat in August, and it continued to climb in St. Louis, reaching an average of 96.9 miles per hour in September. Naturally, Axford also recovered his control after the trade, because Cardinals.
St. Louis had enough relievers not to need Axford at the roughly $6 million salary he was projected to make, and when he was non-tendered, the Indians struck. If he pitches poorly in his age-31 season, he’ll be non-tendered again. If he succeeds, the Indians will have gotten themselves a serviceable closer without making a major financial commitment, and they’ll have him under team control for two more seasons. Axford’s second PECOTA comp is Jose Veras—who seems like a future Cleveland closer—so adjust your expectations accordingly. —Ben Lindbergh
Whenever someone gets a closer job, fantasy players pay attention. This week's new closer is a remake of an old one, and the hope is that he's more Coke Zero than New Coke. The "proven closer" moniker gets thrown around an awful lot, and while Axford certainly qualifies based on his black ink from 2011, it's been a rough ride the last two years. Right now, Axford easily falls into the bottom third of closers on draft day, and may be pushing the bottom five. Still, he's worth drafting in all leagues, because saves—especially on what should be a good team without an elite offense—are nothing to shake your head at. Well, in fantasy, anyway.
This just makes me sad. As a big Cody Allen supporter, I was hoping to see him get the job and become a solid middle-range closer. Unfortunately, it looks like that is going to have to wait until Terry Francona tires of Axford's act. It may not take very long, but there's no reason to draft Allen in shallow mixed leagues anymore. —Bret Sayre
Signed SS-R Clint Barmes to a one-year, $2 million contract. [12/13]
Barmes is one of the best fielders in baseball, and also one of the worst batters. Over the past three seasons, he ranks fourth in FRAA (behind Andrelton Simmons, Brendan Ryan, and Jean Segura), third in DRS (behind Simmons and Ryan), and second in UZR (behind Simmons) among shortstops. Over the same span, he had the third-lowest TAv (.227) among all hitters with a minimum of 900 PA, behind only Yuniesky Betancourt and Darwin Barney. No one who made as many plate appearances from 2012-13 produced less.
The combination of a groundball pitching staff and a strong infield defense worked wonders for the Pirates last season, and bringing Barmes back should mean more of the same. With the younger and less offensively inept Jordy Mercer slated to take more playing time, Barmes will be relegated to a backup/defensive substitute role, but he’s likely to pick up some starts against right-handed pitchers, and even the odd lefty when Neil Walker (who struggles versus southpaws) sits and Mercer moves to second. The Pirates can leverage his skills by making sure most of his starts come with extreme groundballers like Charlie Morton on the mound.
Barmes will turn 35 before Opening Day, and he’s about to become an itinerant gloveman, floating from bench to bench like John McDonald did in 2013. For now, though, he should help the Pirates more than he hurts them, as long as reigning Manager of the Year Clint Hurdle picks the right times to deploy him. —Ben Lindbegh
Reportedly agreed to sign 2B-R Mark Ellis to a one-year contract. [12/15]
Just when you think the Cardinals can’t get any deeper, they add the starting second baseman from the 92-win team they took down in the NLCS. Ellis is known primarily for his defense: a deserving Gold Glove finalist at age 36, he ranks third in UZR and fourth in DRS at his position over the past three seasons. (FRAA likes him, but a little less.) But unlike fellow fielding standout Clint Barmes, whom I wrote about above, he’s not a problem at the plate. Ellis hasn’t hit for power since 2009, but he’s willing to take a walk, and only 10 players with as many plate appearances over the past two seasons have been credited with a higher line drive rate. Enough of those liners have led to singles for him to have a TAv a tick above average, both over the course of his career and from 2012-13. The Dodgers may have made a mistake when they bought out Ellis’ option; he’s gritty and gutty, yes, but he’s also just plain good.
In St. Louis, Ellis will serve as a mentor/short-half platoon partner for rookie left-handed hitter Kolten Wong, a 23-year-old with Ellis-type potential. (On occasion, he can fill in for Matt Carpenter, too.) Ellis is a career .276/.348/.429 hitter versus southpaws, so the Cardinals won’t sacrifice as much production when he plays as they do with Daniel Descalso. In a part-time role, he’ll have a better chance of avoiding his annual trip to the DL with a hamstring/quad/calf strain, and because the veteran is signed for just one season, Wong won’t be blocked in 2015 if his transition to starter goes smoothly. Ellis is good enough to have gotten more playing time had he signed somewhere else, but the Cardinals give him the best chance to win his first World Series, and he gives them a better chance to win their 12th. This is a good fit for both sides, and a smart way for St. Louis to complete its infield overhaul. —Ben Lindbergh
I'm sure Ellis is going to love being on the Cardinals, but for fantasy purposes, we're not overly concerned with his feelings. Now staring at a backup/utility role in St Louis, Ellis' fantasy value goes out the window in all mixed leagues, and takes a huge tumble in NL-only formats. At this point, he's worth only a $1 flier at the end of NL auctions.
This signing also takes a little bit of the wind out of Wong's sails. The likelihood is that he'll play well enough to prevent Ellis from getting the majority of the playing time at the keystone, but when Ellis is the second option instead of Skip Schumaker (who was worth 3.5 fewer wins than Ellis over the last two years), Matheny might have a quicker trigger finger. This shouldn't knock Wong's value down too much for 2014, but taking his price down by a dollar or two is probably a good idea. —Bret Sayre
Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @benlindbergh