John Axford has the credentials. He’s a former All-Star and Rolaids Relief Man Award winner. He’s endeared himself to fans by letting the masses choose his entrance music and his mustache is the envy of all facial hair enthusiasts. Most importantly: He’s closing games. For a team whose closer imploded at the end of the 2013 season, that’s the only thing that counts.
Cleveland fans know the front office loves reclamation projects as much as TBS loves airing reruns of the Big Bang Theory. That’s why it’s never a surprise to see a pitcher come to the Indians whose star once shined bright for another team. Last season it was Scott Kazmir; this year, it’s Axford. The season is just 19 games young, but so far the experiment’s been a success. Axford is 7-of-8 in save situations, with a 3.12 ERA.
Everyone wants to see Axford regain the form of 2011, when he slammed the door on 46 saves and a 1.95 ERA for the Brewers. Call it nitpicking, but I can’t help be a little apprehensive about his future fortunes. I’m not saying Axford can’t be effective, but I’m skeptical he can be that dominant if he continues to issue walks.
It’s a small sample, but in 8.2 innings Axford’s posting 7.27 BB/9. During his dominant 2011 season, his BB/9 ratio was 3.1. In 2012, Axford converted 35 of 44 attempts, but his BB/9 jumped to 5.1 He also saw his ERA rise by almost three runs from the previous season.
Axford pitched 54.2 innings for the Brewers last season before being traded to the Cardinals, but did improve his BB/9 ratio (3.8). Of course, he ended up hooking up with St. Louis, and got it together enough to pitch in the World Series. The bottom line is that Axford is getting the job done right now, but I’ve heard Rick Manning tell me enough times how walks will come back to haunt you. Axford may not be Perez, but Tribe fans could be in store for the roller coaster rides CP came to be known for.
• Adding to my bullpen assessments, Tribe relievers are pitching well, considering some of the holes the starting rotation has dug in the early going. I wasn’t surprised to see Indians’ relievers logged 60 innings through the team’s first 18 games. I was surprised to see that total is tied for seventh in the American League, so the Indians’ aren’t the only club calling the cavalry.
The bullpen has a 2.63 ERA while holding opponents to a .205 average. This is strong because I thought Vinnie Pestano was really going to have to regain his Bullpen Mafia form to make the pen a true threat. Instead, Pestano was demoted and the likes of Cody Allen, Josh Outman, Marc Rzepczynski, and Scott Atchinson have picked up the slack.
Allen’s career continues to trend upward as he hadn’t allowed an earned run in 11 appearances spanning 8.2 innings. He’s also fanned 13 batters in that time. Outman and Rzepczynski give Francona left-handed options, while Atchinson has been pegged for just one run in seven appearances.
• As Atchinson, 38, continues to produce, I still find myself saying, “Who is this guy, and why does he look like my old Little League coach.”
Atchinson has logged a lot of minor-league a miles in his career since being drafted in 1999. His first significant time at the Major League level came in 2004 with the Mariners. In 2007 he played in 22 games for the Giants, but then played in Japan for two seasons. Atchinson returned to the states and found a home pitching for Francona and the Red Sox in 2010. He played for the Mets last season and appeared in 50 games.
• Offensively, the lineup has struggled, and that’s being nice. Entering the Kansas City series April 21, clutch-hitting was almost non-existent as the Tribe was batting .209 with runners in scoring position (13th in the American League). The Indians were second-to-last in the AL (.143) when batting with RISP and two outs.
The top of the order isn’t setting a good example with Nick Swisher (.197) Jason Kipnis (.246) and Carlos Santana (.145) all struggling. According to a recent story from Jordan Bastian of MLB.com, Francona won’t be making any permanent changes, but the manager looked like a genius when he gave Santana the night off and inserted Lonnie Chisenhall into the clean-up spot against Jeremy Guthrie Monday night.
The “Chiz Kid” embraced batting in the No. 4 spot and went 2-4 with a double.
• Speaking of Chisenhall, the 25-year-old is finally having big-league success. The sample is still small, but this what is what we’ve been waiting for. His line reads .448/.484/.621. His OPS is 1.105. He does his best against righties and has faced right-handers almost exclusively, save for one at-bat. This was the Indians plan heading into the season and thus far, it’s working.
• Everything you need to know about Jason Giambi being on the roster can be explained by that dramatic homer he blasted into right field at the end of last season.
His overall numbers will look awful on their face, but at 43, Giambi shouldn’t be posting world-beater stats. His best strength is his power and his bat still packs a punch.
Giambi hit nine homers with the Indians last year in 216 plate appearances, but as Sports Illustrated pointed out, five of those mooonshots came in the eighth or ninth inning; two of them tied the score, and two were walkoffs, including the aforementioned season changer that propelled the Tribe into the Wild Card round.
• I’m convinced we saw a career year when Asdrubal Cabrera hit 25 homers and drove in 92 runs in 2011. Cabrera hasn’t come close to duplicating those numbers, and judging by his latest start, it’s a reach to think he can attain those numbers again.
Playing in his contract year, Cabrera’s been awful in the early going (.217/.299/.362). For his career, Cabrera’s April’s slash reads .264/.335/.402, which resembles his overall career line of .271/.334/.412. FanGraphs is projecting Cabrera to hit around .250 while hitting 12-16 homers and driving in somewhere between 57-70 runs. After watching Cabrera the past two seasons, these projections might be spot on.
• Through 19 games, the Tribe stands at 9-10. Through 19 games last season, the club stood at 8-11. Let the marathon begin.
Nick Dudukovich is a Dayton-area freelance writer who covers the Cincinnati Reds for suburban weeklies. He spent three years of his writing career with the Cincinnatti Enquirer, maintaining a beat of 17 schools, writing feature and hard news stories, maintaining a blog at Cincinnati.com, photographing events, producing in and appearing in weekly video chats, and was the Cincinnati correspondent for the Ohio High School Kickoff Show, which airs on SportsTime Ohio. Follow him on Twitter at @DukeofNick