Tuesday, July 17, 2012

It's time to ax the Ax Man

Monday night was one of those nights where I wish I was an early riser. It would have resulted in an earlier bed time, and therefore the likelihood that I missed the end of the opener of a 3-game series between the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals. For those of you that were smart enough to let your heads hit the pillow before about 10:15 PM and thought the Brewers would hold for a 2-0 victory (and make up a game in the standings on all three teams ahead of them in the Central Division), allow me to fill you in on what kept the Brewers seven games out of the playoffs.

Per usual, Ron Roenicke "stuck with his guy" and called on his "closer" John Axford to put away the Cardinals. I hope everyone got  a good laugh from that last sentence. I'll cut to the chase here: three base hits (two of which were seeing-eye singles) and two walks later, Kameron Loe was in the game, and the Brewers were down 3-2. Sure, the two hits that drove in runs weren't exactly crushed, but Axford got behind nearly every hitter, and the fact of the matter is that you can't walk the opponent when holding a 2-run lead. The Brewers offense failed to reach base in the bottom half and thus concludes the career of John Axford as the Milwaukee closer.

I'm too quick to draw that conclusion, you say? First of all, I doubt anyone is saying that, but for those of you who are sarcastically asking such a foolish question, let me throw some numbers at you. Axford has now converted 16 of 22 save opportunities (72.7% rate). That's good for 18th in the National League among closers with at least 12 save attempts. Yes, there are only 16 teams in the NL. His ERA has ballooned to 5.35, making him 17th among those same 18 closers with 12+ save attempts. Monday night, Axford was one strike away from saving the game against four different batters. And finally, Axford wears number 59, the same number - you guessed it - Derrick Turnbow wore.

Almost a month ago today, I didn't allow myself the necessary recovery time after a disappointing loss and went on a rant I only somewhat regret. To prove it was nothing short of a rant, I shamefully called out Ryan Braun for failing to come through in the clutch. One thing I will stand by in that rant was my bashing of the Brewer bullpen, specifically the combination of Francisco Rodriguez and Axford himself at the tail end of games. Who did I say should replace them? Tyler Thornburg and Mark Rogers. I'm sticking to it. Although the call-up of Rogers may realistically not happen until September, Thornburg is here, and as far as I'm concerned, it's a "why not" situation when it comes to putting Thorny in the closer's role.

Here are a few reasons that support my case for both being placed in late inning situations. First of all...why not? The Brewers are 42-47, have lost 20 games in which they've held a lead, and the bullpen has BLOWN 16 SAVES THIS SEASON (19 BS all of last season). So there's that. There's also the fact that both are extremely talented and have the stuff needed to perform at the big league level. Rogers has had his share of injuries and plenty more was expected of him by this point in his career, but the fact of the matter is that he's still only 26-years old. Mike Fiers? He's 27. Rogers has also pitched well as of late down at AAA Nashville. And other than the four long balls Thorny has allowed (I know...not good), he simply just needs to make adjustments and better mix his pitches to avoid these home run problems.

I know I've forgotten to address one problem - both of these guys are starting pitchers. But last time I checked, there still isn't room in the starting rotation (for now). Sure, we would all like to see Randy Wolf take a hike, but he's the team's only left-handed starter and he's in the final year of his deal, so the suffering will only last so long. Thornburg is making a spot start on Wednesday in place of a supposedly fatigued Zack Greinke (something smells there), but as far as we know, he'll just return to the bullpen immediately following his start. So who do the Brewers send down to make room for Rogers?

How about John Axford? Seriously, what's the worst that could happen? Best case scenario is Axford works out his control issues and eventually works his way back into the closer's role. I know that his career path is taking almost the same exact course as He Who Must Not Be Named (Turnbow for those who didn't follow), but the least the Brewers can do is give him a chance to regain his bearings. Let's not forget this dude went 46/48 in save ops last season with a sub-2.00 ERA. He's got good stuff, and although the problem could just be that the rest of the league has figured him out, I wouldn't consider such an extreme idea as parting ways with Axford.

Monday night's loss hurt a lot - not any worse than some of the other tough defeats the Brewers have suffered through this season, but certainly not any better. With that being said, not all hope is lost, but last night was kind of the Brewers' season in a microcosm. It would probably be best for the Brewers to start making some trades that benefit the team for the future and make things easier on the organization and it's fans when it comes to everyone's "hope factor." As much as I don't want to care, this team isn't losing enough for me to quit on them, but boy does it sting when they lose in such heart-breaking fashion time and time again. Thanks to the extra Wild Card slot, less teams are going to be "sellers" as the trade deadline approaches, and more teams are going to be caught in no-man's land.

But back to the team's most pressing issue besides the trade deadline - the bullpen, and more specifically the end-of-game situation. What we are realistically looking at is Francisco Rodriguez being inserted into the closer's role and John Axford being used in less-stressful situations to help him get his mojo back. I'd love for Axford to hit the minors and Rogers to get his shot, but Roenicke will likely do with Axford what I mentioned just before. In my opinion, I believe Axford's confidence could receive a jolt in AAA, but there's also the risk of him struggling, leading to his career going down the shitter. Sure, his 2011 success is still reason for the Brewers - and other teams for that matter - not to give up on him quite yet, but in the meantime, give some guys who haven't received an opportunity...an opportunity.

Okay. I'm going to try and combine the extreme with the real. I'll accept the fact that Rodriguez will now take over the closer's role. At least this gives the Brewers a chance to showcase him at the end of games, which could make him a more enticing asset for teams in need of bullpen help. Axford...fine, you can stay in the Bigs, but in no way can you pitch in a meaningful situation until you figure things out. That leaves the eighth inning role open for Thornburg to enter. After his Wednesday start, it appears as though Thornburg will return to the 'pen (at least until Greinke is dealt). Why not put him in the setup role? There isn't anyone else worthy of such a job (Kameron Loe 4 BS, Manny Parra 4.20 ERA, Jose Veras...just no, Livan Hernandez already in the long relief role...no need for two LRPs). He could pitch in the eighth, potentially move into the closer's role should Rodriguez be dealt, and if all else fails, throw him in the starting rotation when Greinke is dealt. I'd be hard pressed to believe both Rodriguez and Greinke will still be in a Brewers' uniform come August.

I still believe Rogers' time will come at the big league level, and I haven't even discussed how dominant Wily Peralta has been lately (only 1 ER allowed in his last 22.1 IP). I strongly believe pitching remains at a premium for the Brewers...now they just need to learn how to use it. The closer's role is the most delicate role in baseball, no questions asked, and that's what makes it so valuable. There are only so many guys like Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman. I've gone as far as saying bullpens - or at least specific bullpen roles - shouldn't exist, but again, that's me being a little too extreme. If it weren't for starting pitchers having to be in their cute little "routines," I believe the best plan of action would be to pitch whoever gives you the best chance to win on any given day, given that such a pitcher is healthy/not fatigued. We can still monitor pitch counts for the sake of taking care of arms, but everyone pitching at the big league level should have the ability and the arsenal of pitches necessary to go at least 100 pitches/five innings in a game.

Whatever. Not going to get into that argument right now. As it currently stands, the Brewers are 42-47, seven games out of the playoffs, and once again not doing a whole lot in yet another important stretch in the schedule. C'mon, Brewers. Mix it up a little, hold on to your leads and get some good, young talent for the years to follow instead of completely wasting away another season of baseball. You owe it to the fans that have stuck with you this long, and they need something to root for this season and look forward to in future years. Should such things occur, I'll be back to discuss them. In the meantime, we're 27 days away from Aug. 9, also known the day the Packers open up their pre-season slate, and I can't wait to talk about a team with its head on straight. Until then, we're stuck with baseball, so here's to hoping you - and the Brewers - make the most of it.

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