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In K-Rod Trade, Brewers Bet on Axford

Brewers GM Doug Melving might have been diplomatically non-committal when discussing Francisco Rodriguez‘s role, but it’s clear to just about everyone that he will not be the team’s closer. He’s qualified, to be certain. Although his stuff has diminished a bit he still strikes out more than a batter per inning and for the second straight year is walking fewer batters than in the past. The Brewers, however, have two strong reasons to keep him in the setup role: the presence of John Axford, and the $17.5 million 2012 option that will vest if Rodriguez finishes 21 more games this season. But if something goes wrong with the former, it could lead to the latter.

For the past two seasons Axford has been Rodriguez’s superior. While Rodriguez has held his own with a 2.61 ERA and 2.78 FIP, Axford has been a measure better with a 2.63 ERA and 2.18 FIP. He has also struck out more while walking just a shade more, and has allowed home runs at about half of Rodriguez’s rate. The Brewers don’t even have to use Rodriguez’s vesting option as an excuse to use him in the setup role. They have their man, and as long as he’s healthy and effective Axford will remain in the closer’s role. What happens, though, if one of those conditions is no longer true?

As it regards remaining effective, the Brewers should have little to fear. There was some anxiety on Opening Day when Axford, who came out of nowhere in 2010, allowed four runs in 0.2 innings and blew the save. We’ve so often seen relievers storm onto the scene one year and then recede back to the place from which they came the next. But Axford quickly showed that he was no flash in the pan. Through his next 41 appearances he has allowed just 11 more runs, leaving him with a 2.83 ERA and 2.26 FIP. Even with his still-low home run rate, 0.44 per nine, he still has an xFIP of just 2.53. In other words, it appears as though Axford did make a breakthrough last year and will continue serving the Brewers well as their closer.

Still, we’re dealing with just under 100 innings in the last two years, meaning ye olde small sample size caveat still applies. Again, it doesn’t appear to be that great a concern, especially for the remainder of 2011, given Axford’s results and peripherals. But maybe it took 100 innings for the league to get a read on him. He wouldn’t be the first relief pitcher to dominate for a season and a half and then fall off the face of the earth. Injury is another concern — not specifically to Axford, but to pitchers in general. You never know when a guy will need to miss time. If either of those things were to happen, the Brewers could not justify keeping Rodriguez from the closer role. That could have enormous implications for the 2012 team.

The Brewers already have $61.5 million committed to six players in 2012, and that doesn’t count some third-year arbitration raises, including a presumably large one to Shaun Marcum. They’ll also need a new shortstop, lest they pick up Yuniesky Betancourt‘s $6 million option (which, since he has a $2 million buy-out, would raise the payroll to $65.5 million for seven players). The biggest concern, of course, is first base, which Prince Fielder will leave vacant. Should Rodriguez’s option vest, the Brewers would be on the hook for $79 million to seven players in 2012. If they picked up Betancourt’s option that would be $83 million, which is the size of their 2011 payroll.

Everything might seem fine in Milwaukee, with Axford protecting the Brewers from the payroll killer that is Rodriguez’s option. But all it takes is a small strain or a bout of ineffectiveness for that to change. The Brewers are clearly all-in this year, and if something happened to Axford they’d have to use Rodriguez as the closer. There is no way around it, both in terms of need and in justification (the union could conceivably file a grievance if the Brewers turned to, say, Takashi Saito as the closer in Axford’s stead). If that were to happen, the Brewers could find themselves in an unenviable position for 2012. Unless they greatly expanded payroll, they’d head into the season with major weaknesses.

Earlier today, Steve said the trade made “a surprising amount of sense” for the Brewers. In a vacuum, it’s tough to disagree. They strengthen their pen with one of the game’s better relievers, and they don’t even have to use him in the closer role. But if anything happens to Axford, the entire outlook changes. What once made sense now looks like an enormous burden on the Brewers. Really, the deal was a big bet on Axford. If he remains healthy and effective the deal should work out well. If not, well, the Brewers could be scrambling for solutions in the 2012 off-season.