One of the numerous things to come out of Brewers camp in the past week has been the prospect of a long-term extension with closer John Axford, which has been met by fans with an emphatic “heck yeah!". Both Axford and the Brewers seem very open to a deal, to the point that it looks very possible that something will get done by Opening Day. Followers of the team in all capacities seem very excited as well, and with good reason: Axford has been one of the top relievers in the league for a couple years now, also brings an outstanding mustache and Twitter account to the table, and the market is currently such that all three of those things aren't priced as outrageously as they once were.
I'll start out by saying that I basically agree with that last paragraph. However, I'm not sure if such a deal is quite the slam dunk some people are making it out to be. So, today, we're going to try and look at the idea from both sides: Why an Axford extension might be a great idea, and why the Brewers should think twice before going forward with such a pact.
Pros: In Axford, we see a player who dominated in one of the highest-profile roles in the game, is almost universally liked by fans, and is still probably underrated. J.P. Breen from Disciples of Uecker had an excellent look at Axford in the context of Brewer history a few days ago, but I thought it would be worth reiterating just how unhittable Axford has been compared to his contemporaries: From 2010-2011, among relievers with at least 120 IP, or two full seasons of work, Axford has the fifth-highest strikeout rate, the fourth-lowest homerun rate, and the second-lowest FIP. Not a single full-time reliever ranked ahead of him in all three categories. From a purely performance-based standpoint, there's a credible argument that the Ax-man is the premier fireman in the game today.
There are also numerous points in Axford's favor that have little to do with his on-the-field numbers. Though his service-time clock started at a relatively advanced age, Axford will still only be 29 this year, meaning a deal will capture more of his peak seasons than your typical long-term pact. Even if the Brewers go all-in and give Axford a 5-year deal (running from 2013 to 2017), the deal would cover his age 30-35 seasons, a time over which he should retain a good part of his peak value. Also, it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect a lanky fireballer with outstanding off-speed pitches and what seems to be continually improving command to age better than your average hurler. Even if we throw baseball completely out the window, Axford has still shown a surprising openness to staying in Milwaukee long-term, and has, by all indications, been great with fans and in the community and done all the things that you would look for in one of the faces of your organization.
Cons: Axford has been fantastic to date, but even if there are no obvious red flags, there are some things about his position and career that should give you pause. The first one is rather obvious: Axford is a relief pitcher and is thus subject to low innings totals, the ups and downs of the pitchers that precede and follow him, and whatever issues pushed him into the 'pen in the first place. Those things can lead to all kinds of crazy stuff, from an unexpected breakout to a one-year drop in performance to an unforeseen career nosedive to any combination of these three over a period of time. It's just the nature of the beast: Axford suddenly stopped walking so many guys in AAA and became a lights-out closer almost immediately after, Trevor Hoffman's sudden rise was as unexpected as his sudden flameout decades later, and Jonathon Papelbon, Francisco Rodriguez, and even Rivera to a degree have suffered seemingly random one-year blips. Bottom line, even relievers of Axford's caliber are incredibly volatile, and it's hard to justify paying them several years in advance when you don't really have to.
Also, that last bit was based on the assumption that Axford is among the surest of big-league relievers, which is certainly possible, but not a guarantee. As we said before, part of the perfect storm that made Axford a big-league closer was his sudden outburst of control in 2010: Until then, his walk rates were consistently in excess of five per nine innings, and he was a good minor-league arm who was always very old for his leagues. I'm not saying that Axford is going to suddenly start walking the ballpark again on some random day in 2014 - I'm not even saying it's at all likely - but a long-term commitment to Axford would carry a decent amount of risk that isn't always apparent when looking at his recent dominance alone.
This article was actually quite a bit of fun, and I hope it helped everyone understand both sides of the issue better. I’m still hoping the Brewers and Axford can get a deal done, but I don’t think it’s something that needs to be pushed through as quickly as it has been: Axford will still be around in a month, as well as next winter, and the extra time the club would have to be sure Axford is really the pitcher they want locked up for another few years might be well worth it.