John Axford not enough for St. Louis Cardinals to give up Michael Blazek

St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak made his first and only trade of the season Friday when he got right-handed reliever John Axford from the Milwaukee Brewers.

Jun 25, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Jon Jay (19) celebrates with relief pitcher Michael Blazek (67) after defeating the Houston Astros 13-5 at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Axford is a nice pickup for the Cardinals. He brings a veteran presence to the team’s young bullpen and has shown flashes of dominance in the past. The problem is the Cardinals gave up right-handed rookie Michael Blazek in return.

Blazek pitched in 11 games for the Cardinals this season and gave up eight runs in 10.1 innings, but he is the 24-year-old who has the tools to be an effective major-league reliever for years to come.

Sure, he had an earned-run average of 6.97 with the Cardinals, but Blazek allowed runs in just four of his 11 appearances and allowed more than one run in only two of those games. Otherwise, he averaged a strikeout per inning while he dealt with getting called up to the big leagues and sent down to the minors three times in one season.

It would be tough for any young pitcher to find consistent success while in such a tenuous position. Even highly touted rookies such as Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha have struggled at times as they’ve taken the road back and forth between St. Louis and Memphis several times this season.

Yes, Blazek also walked 10 hitters to nearly match his number of strikeouts, but the Cardinals have had plenty of pitchers who struggled with their control but steadily improved as they matured at the big-league level.

For example, Jason Motte came to St. Louis as a 26-year-old in 2008, and it wasn’t until 2010 that he got his career ERA below four. However, the Cardinals stuck with Motte and he became the pitcher who not only closed out the 2011 World Series but also the team’s closer who saved every one of the team’s 42 save opportunities in 2012.

But, perhaps the Cardinals though Blazek would not grow out of his control issues and decided to cut their losses. Unfortunately, they got a pitcher who is not substantially better.

Axford was much better at one time, but not anymore. He broke into the big leagues with Milwaukee in 2009 and by 2011 was one of the best closers in Major League Baseball, with 46 saves, a 1.95 ERA and 86 strikeouts in 73.2 innings.

Those were the good days. The more recent days have not been so nice.

Axford’s ERA ballooned to 4.67 in 2012, and he gave up twice as many homeruns (10) during that season than he had in his entire career (five) and lost the closing job in the process as the Berwers fell from a team two games from the World Series in 2011 to a third-place team that barely finished above .500 in 2012.

Axford has given up long balls even more frequently in 2013. He already allowed 10 in 62 appearances for the Brewers with a month yet to play.

Cardinals officials figured they needed veteran depth in the bullpen, and that’s exactly what they got. Axford is nothing more nor nothing less at this point in his career.

Maybe he will fill the role Octavio Dotel held during the 2011 run to the World Series championship. He could be a knowledgeable reliever who gets crucial outs during the late stages of a ballgame that is packed with the pressure that is certain to come with September games when the top three teams in the division are separated by fewer than three games.

But he could also be the 4.50-ERA pitcher who gives up back-breaking homeruns late in those same games while Blazek becomes an integral part of the bullpen renaissance the Brewers sorely need to return to relevance in the National League Central Division.

The Cardinals took a gamble not only for the rest of the 2013 season but also for many years to come.

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