Searching for Saves: Milwaukee Brewers: Can John Axford Do The Job In 2013?

One of the biggest issues facing the Brewers in 2012 was that when John Axford imploded, they were ill equipped to replace him (Francisco Rodriguez was just as bad). While Axford appears primed to open the season in the closers role once again, this is a team with a little more depth in 2013. Lets take a look at their options for saves, especially if John Axford struggles once again:

The Likely Closer – John Axford
Obviously 2012 was a nightmare as he posted a 4.67 ERA, 1.44 WHIP and blew nine saves (in 2011 he posted a 1.95 ERA and 1.14 WHIP). Axford’s regression can be broken down into three distinct areas:

1) Home Runs – While he didn’t give up many fly balls (29.7%), he allowed 10 HR thanks to a 19.2% HR/FB. However, this had never been an issue for Axford before, as he posted a HR/9 of 0.49 in 2011 and 0.45 over his minor league career. Look for this issue to be rectified.

2) Line Drive Rate – Opposing hitters teed off on him last season to the tune of a 24.0% line drive rate (15.2% the year before). We want to believe that this is easily fixed, but he did not post a single month below 20% last season. Could he have been tipping his pitches? Could there have been a mechanical flaw? Maybe, but the fact is the league adjusted to him last season. If he doesn’t make a correction, he is going to continue to be hit hard.

3) Control – After posting a BB/9 of 3.05 in 2011 he ballooned to 5.06 last season. While that big of a regression may have been extreme, he posted a 6.04 mark in the minors and 4.79 at Triple-A. Well, maybe it wasn’t extreme after all…

Axford has the strikeout rate to be dominant, with an 11.39 K/9 in the Major Leagues, but the last two points are eye-popping. While you would expect an improvement, there’s a good chance he fails as the closer once again.

Option – Mike Gonzalez
His disadvantage could be that he’s a lefty, though the addition of Tom Gorzelanny could help a little bit (though Gorzelanny is more of a long man). That, and his inability to stay healthy make him a tough candidate to trust. In the past six seasons he has thrown over 36 innings twice, so that really tells us all we need to know.

Well, that coupled with his own control issues (4.11 BB/9 for his career) and consistently being hit hard (line drive rates over 22% each of the past three seasons). It’s hard to imagine him being trusted.

Option – Jim Henderson
He made his Major League debut last season and was given an opportunity to close, but managed to convert just three of seven opportunities. Like the first two options in Milwaukee, his control could be an issue (3.82 BB/9 for his minor league career). That said, it was better than Axford’s in the minor leagues, though a 5.36 mark at Triple-A doesn’t give us much hope.

Could he generate a lot of strikeouts? Yes, and he proved as much in 2012 with a 13.21 K/9 in the Majors, but he is another in a long line of risky options.

Deep Sleeper – Fautino De Los Santos
He was brought over from Oakland last season and thrived for the Brewes at Triple-A (1.98 ERA in 13.2 innings). Of course, while he didn’t have control issues after the trade, three walks, that had always been the concern. However, compared to the other options, his 3.57 BB/9 in the minors and 4.11 at Triple-A look sterling.

With an 11.49 K/9, there is no questioning his strikeout ability. He’s even shown it in his opportunities in Oakland, with 46 K over 36.1 innings of work. Considering the options that they have, if Axford struggles, he may actually possess the most upside to take te job and run with it.

Deep Sleeper – Casey Medlen
He hasn’t pitched above Single-A, but he has shown the stuff you want to see from a relief pitcher. In 54.1 innings last season he posted a 2.98 ERA and 1.27 WHIP while striking out 63 and walking 17 (a .329 BABIP helped inflate the WHIP). He likely won’t get an opportunity this season to close, but if he thrives at the upper levels he should at least reach Milwaukee. Keep the name filed away, because its possible he actually holds the most long-term appeal.

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