The Indians officially announced Thursday that they had signed Axford to a one-year contract worth $4.5 million (plus $1.75 million in possible incentives). News of the acquisition broke late Sunday, with general manager Chris Antonetti confirming during a telephone conference Thursday that Axford would almost assuredly begin next season as Cleveland’s ninth-inning stopper.
“That was definitely a big part,” Axford said of the opportunity to return to the closer role with the Indians. “There were quite a few factors, including the team itself — how well they did last year. The makeup of the clubhouse, it seems like somewhere I would fit in and I’d like to be. And also, talking to (manager) Terry Francona.
“It was something I wanted to be a part of.”
The Indians, who released beleaguered closer Chris Perez in late October, zeroed in on Axford among a deep pool of available closers this offseason, counting on a bounce-back season from a former elite pitcher in that role.
Cleveland preferred a one-year deal and was able to secure as much after a down 2013 from Axford, who went 7-7 with a 4.02 ERA and without a save in 75 appearances for Milwaukee and St. Louis. A miserable start to the season, in which he allowed nine runs (four home runs) in 3⅓ innings of his first four appearances, wound up costing Axford his closer job in Milwaukee.
He pitched much better after those four outings, seeing a return of velocity and posting a 2.81 ERA (21 earned runs, 67⅓ innings) over his final 71 games, which included six postseason appearances upon being traded to the Cardinals.
“He still has an elite fastball and a very good secondary pitch,” Antonetti said of Axford, who averaged around 95 mph with his fastball in 2013. “And he made some adjustments toward the end of the year last year when he got to St. Louis that got him back to being the pitcher that he was when he had all the success in Milwaukee.
“As we looked at a lot of information — subjective information from our scouts, video analysis, analytics — they all pointed to a bounce back after looking at the way he pitched in September. We thought it was the right guy to take a chance on, and we’re confident that he’ll help stabilize the back of our pen.”
Prior to the start of last season, the Canadian-born Axford pitched in the World Baseball Classic and implied that preparing for the national event might have contributed to his slow start.
“I just don’t think my arm was ready at the beginning of (last) year,” he said. “There’s some correlation to throwing 98 (mph) against Team USA and then 92 when the season starts and not having your stuff. It could have just been a dead arm issue.
Nothing was quite right.
“After those games were out of the way, my arm started feeling better and everything kind of clicked again for the rest of the regular season. If you erase those first few games, it’s obviously a pretty decent year.”
Axford, who led the National League with 46 saves and posted a sparkling 1.95 ERA in 2011, saved 35 games in 2012, but they came with a bulky 4.67 ERA. The Indians are hoping the trend begins to reverse in 2014, with right-handers Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw waiting in the wings, but Cleveland wanting to keep them in their setup roles.
“We feel that we’ve added an experienced power arm to the back end of our bullpen,” Antonetti said. “John’s a guy who’s had a lot of success closing out games and pitching in leverage situations. We’re excited to add him to the organization.”
Axford immediately endeared himself to Tribe fans when he referenced the movie “Major League” in a tweet with a picture of Bob Uecker (aka Harry Doyle) shortly after the official announcement:
“Let’s make this officially, official! Excited to be a part of the @Indians & I’m pretty sure Harry Doyle is on board!”