John Axford is ready to be a Milwaukee Brewer for a very long time. Though he’s the only player on the Brewers’ current 40-man roster without a contract for the upcoming season, Axford and the Brewers have communicated about a potential long-term extension that would buy out his remaining arbitration years. Given that he’s coming off a season in which he emerged as one of the best closers in the game, now is a good time to secure his future finances. But given the volatility of relievers, the Brewers might be better off letting the Ax-man go year-to-year a little longer.
In recent years, handing out significant extensions to relievers with roughly two years of service time hasn’t been a common practice among teams.
|Pitcher||Year||Service Time||Extension Details|
|Manuel Corpas||2008||1.076||Four years – $8.03M|
|Matt Capps||2008||2.026||Two years – $3.05M|
|Joakim Soria||2008||1.053||Three years – $8.75M|
|Brian Wilson||2010||2.169||Two years – $15M|
|Sergio Santos||2011||2.000||Three years – $8.25M|
|Jose Arredondo||2012||2.168||Two years – $2M|
It’s tough to find a contract above that perfectly fits Axford’s current situation due to his lofty save total in less than two years as a pro. Soria and Corpas signed deals around the same time as Axford, but neither player had established themselves as an elite closer the same way Axford has over that same period. Since we know teams will pay more for saves, it seems Axford would also ask for more money than either player based on the fact that he has already accumulated 71 saves in his major league career. Even Capps, Santos and Arredondo — who all had more service time than Axford when they signed their extensions — failed to save nearly as many games as Axford in their first two seasons.
That leaves Brian Wilson as the only player on the list with both similar service time and a similar save count. Before Wilson signed his extension, he had already saved 86 games in the majors. What’s interesting about Wilson’s contract is that it was only a two-year deal. While neither the Brewers nor Axford have spoken publicly about the deal, there are rumors that they may have discussed a five-year extension. A five-year deal would buy out each of Axford’s arbitration years, making him a known cost over this period instead of going year-to-year via the arbitration process.
The general line of thinking is that because reliever performance is so volatile, it’s foolish to give any relief pitcher a contract that long. In order to satisfy both sides, a Brian Wilson-type extension might be the best case. Axford might not receive financial security for as long as he wants, but $15 million over two-years isn’t bad for a reliever. By signing Axford to a two-year deal, the Brewers reward Axford for his previous performance, but also protect themselves in case he gets injured or ceases to be effective. Once the deal ends, Axford will still be under team control, and it would probably benefit the Brewers to work out another short-term extension with him instead of go through the arbitration process.
If Axford isn’t going to get a four-to-five year extension, the Brewers will have to make it worth it for him to sign a shorter one. In his first season of arbitration, Wilson filed at nearly $5 million before settling with the Giants for $4.4375 million. Saves pay, and even though Axford has yet to enter his arbitration years he could be in for a similar raise if the team fails to sign him. That number would rise each season that Axford remains effective. So offering close to $15 million would give Axford extra incentive to sign a short-term contract while also ensuring his arbitration numbers don’t rise too much if he goes year-to-year.
With Francisco Rodriguez set to be the Brewers’ fifth most expensive player this season, the team understands the importance of keeping reliever salaries reasonable. By handing out a short-term extension to Axford, the team can give themselves some cost certainty going forward, reward him for his past performance and still hold his rights once his extension ends. Axford can be satisfied knowing that he’s set financially for a few seasons, and can still get another nice extension if he continues to pitch well through his current one. Any talk of a four-to-five year deal would be crazy, though. Axford’s a great closer now, but as with most relievers, it’s tough to know what he’ll be in four or five seasons.