The Oakland Athletics have signed free agent relief pitcher John Axford, according to Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle. Jon Heyman had reported a much lower dollar figure earlier, but he apparently missed a zero, according to Joel Sherman of the New York Daily News:
The deal is pending a physical.
Axford spent 2015 with the Colorado Rockies and has pitched for five different teams overall. The right-hander has substantial experience as a closer, having racked up at least 20 saves in four different seasons and 141 for his career. He's also durable, as he's thrown at least 50 innings each year since 2010 and has never hit the disabled list. Armed with a 96-mph fastball, a curve, and a slider, he has a tendency to post high rates of strikeouts (10.6 K/9 career) and walks (4.5 BB/9) and can also limit hits and homers when he's on his game.
Given that track record, it's easy to see why the A's would be interested in Axford this winter. After losing Sean Doolittle for most of 2015, the team is making sure to stock some other relievers with closing experience as backups in case Doolittle misses any more time. They've unofficially come to terms with Ryan Madson, who saved 32 games for the Phillies in 2011, and now they have a second set-up man who can step into the 9th inning when necessary.
Unfortunately, Axford has proven to be consistently inconsistent over his career. His 4.20 ERA last year was good for a 111 ERA+, but that was the first time his ERA had been better than average since 2011. In particular, he has a tendency to go through slumps and get bumped from the closer role:
The last time he made it through a full season as a closer was 2011, when he notched 46 saves for the Brewers to go along with a 1.95 ERA and downballot votes for both Cy Young and MVP. Last season with Colorado, the hammer came after a stretch of five outings that included four blown saves and a fifth game in which he entered with a tie and took the loss. He fought his way back to the 9th inning, though, and went 9-for-10 in saves the rest of the year. Overall he converted 82% of his save situations (25 saves, 2 holds, 6 blown), just under his 85% career rate.
But at age 33 next season, Axford will not be asked to be the anchor in Oakland, or at least not as a first resort. He slots into an increasingly talented unit that now includes Doolittle, Madson, Liam Hendriks, Marc Rzepczynski, and Fernando Rodriguez. On Tuesday, the A's traded Evan Scribner to the Mariners; Scribner led the bullpen in innings last year, meaning that Oakland has now rid themselves of seven of their eight most-used relievers from 2015 (only Rodriguez remains).
Instant reaction: Mixed. I don't like the high walk rate or the annual meltdowns, but I do like the idea of a former closer in the 7th inning rather than the likes of Otero and Abad and Scribner. I also like that there's some heat in the pen where there wasn't before. Axford has his flaws, but if he's only being asked to be third- or fourth-best reliever in the pen then you could do a lot worse. He's also got top-notch mustache potential.