Earlier today we began with a very basic introduction to arbitration 101. Now, we begin to put into practice by examining those members of the Milwaukee Brewers who have filed for 2013 season.
Our first case study: Brewers closer and facial hair aficionado John Axford.
Axford had a roller coaster ride through 2012, but ended the season with the 35 saves. During this mock arbitration hearing, we will examine Axford’s contract and performance history, team perception, the contracts of his peers at the closer position, and we will also try to understand how the team sees Axford in terms of overall value. We begin with a recap of 2012.
The Case For John Axford
2012 salary: $525,ooo
expected salary (via MLB Trade Rumors): $5.1 million
John Axford achieved a few great milestones this season that are sure to help him in his case. In the beginning of the year, he closed out his consecutive save streak at 49, one of the highest totals in the history of Major League Baseball. He also closed out his 100th career save in 2012, and his finishing total of 106 saves puts him at 23rd amongst active players in saves for a career. He finished 11th on the season with 35 saves.
Axford pitched 69 and 1/3 innings in 2012, and owned a 4.67 ERA. He gave up 61 hits, and 42 runs. 36 of those runs are credited to him. He struck out 93 batters, and walked 39 while earning a 1.44 WHIP.
Regardless of the ups and downs suffered by John Axford during the season, he is still one of the most valuable pitchers in the Milwaukee bullpen by leaps and bounds. During the middle of the season, when Axford was replaced by rookie Jim Henderson, and then by Francisco Rodriguez, the team’s situation did not improve. K-Rod blew seven saves (one less than Axford did in 2012) and Henderson blew four. There’s no saying what could have happened if Axford was on the field at that time, since he saved 16 of 18 games through August and September – one of the best totals through those two months in the Major Leagues.
John Axford has only three years of MLB service time, and during that time has established himself as one of the best closers in the game at the current time. He has more saves during his first three seasons than Mariano Rivera and Jonathan Papelbon had. His ERA is on par with Andrew Bailey and Neftali Feliz – two of his contemporaries in terms of service time – and has more save than both of them, plus more career saves than Craig Kimbrel.
One of the most important factors John Axford brings to the Milwaukee Brewers does not appear on the field. His leadership in the clubhouse and especially in the bullpen is unparalleled. There are few players who would take the kind of responsibility that Axford has in the midst of such a dismal season by a bullpen. John Axford stepped up, owned the problems, and went about correcting them. The bullpen’s turnaround – and therefore much of the success of the end of the 2012 season – can be contributed to the work that Axford did with younger players and forming a cohesive and well-prepared relief corps in the Milwaukee bullpen. A leader and a player like John Axford deserves to be recognized for his efforts commensurate with players of his talent level.
The Case for the Milwaukee Brewers
In terms of his career as a whole, 2012 was one of the worst years he has ever had. The only time his
ERA ever came close the 4.67 it climbed to in 2012 was his first year in the Majors, when he earned an average of 3.52 in seven games. He achieved a career-high in strikeouts in 2012, but also had career high numbers in hit batsmen, walks, home runs, and wild pitches. It’s not that we do not believe in John Axford going forward, but that his performance in 2012 does not entitle him to a pay raise of that magnitude.
Axford has been a great asset to Milwaukee over the course of his career – and, in fact, would not have a career were it not for the Milwaukee Brewers taking a chance on offering him a contract. In 2012, he recieved a contract for $525,000 – a figure that is right on par with the closers of his talent level after three years of service with the Major Leagues.
There are very few cases of a closer receiving a contract at a level at or exceeding $5 million during their first eligible arbitration period – Jonathan Paplebon, for instance, received slightly higher than $3 million with the Boston Red Sox. While we concede that Axford is a talented closer and we would like him to be part of our organization going forward, we simply cannot offer him a contract at that high of a price considering the season he had in 2012, his contemporaries in the market place, and recent history. Our payroll could have room for him in a longer term deal – which offered by way of extension and he turned down early on in 2012. But a one-year deal at prices exceeding $5 million would keep his price rising to exorbitant levels during a time when we are unclear about where his career projects going forward.
Axford’s estimated asking price is steep, but not so much when you figure what closers like Feliz and Kimbrel would try for if they were filing for arbitration. It is also important to note that the league is currently in a period when closers are seeing a new rise in their importance to a club – a closer today is worth more in theory in terms of a club’s success than at any other period.
The fact that Milwaukee offered an extension to Axford is also important not only because it is a bargaining chip should the case go to a hearing, but more so because it sets the stage for continued negotiations. The two sides were likely not far off in what they wanted, and I would imagine that talks would be forthcoming if they are not already underway.
I would not be surprised to see a multi-year deal completed for Axford long before any arbitration hearing is set.