Axford excited to join Cards in heat of pennant race
Veteran right-handed reliever acquired from Brewers for player to be named
PITTSBURGH -- Already assisting the Cardinals' climb to the top of the division by winning four of six games on a road trip through Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, the Brewers sent experienced late-inning reliever John Axford to St. Louis on Friday in a trade the Cardinals hope will further aid their postseason push.
Axford leaves one National League Central team playing merely for pride to join one that entered Friday leading the division by one game. In exchange, the Brewers will receive a player to be named. No cash switched hands during the trade, which leaves the Cardinals on the hook to pay the approximate $1 million remaining on Axford's contract.
"We just went through Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, and we were playing for wins, but at the same time, we knew we were playing to be a spoiler," Axford told MLB.com while en route from Milwaukee to Pittsburgh. "Right now, I'm going to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati and I'm going to be contending for a division championship. That's huge. That's going to rekindle a lot of fire within me and get me going. Every game is going to be important."
Brewers manager Ron Roenicke summoned Axford into his office Thursday night to inform the 30-year-old right-hander of the deal. Axford chose to still fly back to Milwaukee overnight, spend the day with his wife and two children before heading to the airport for an afternoon flight.
He was expected to arrive at PNC Park around the time of first pitch Friday, but flight delays precluded Axford from making it to the ballpark at all. The Cardinals, after a 5-0 loss to the Pirates, were still trying to see if they could get him into town before the end of the night.
"It's hard to grasp all of the things I've been thinking of today, all the things I have to get done," Axford said. "At the same time, I'm not trying to take on too much. I'm just going to a new team. I don't want to blow it out of proportion.
"I'd lie if I didn't say I was getting nostalgic about all of the good times I've had in Milwaukee on and off the field. I enjoyed every minute of playing, but also every moment of being in the city, going out and about and engaging myself with different people and the different styles of the city, and living as it were home. It's been interesting having all of those feelings while thinking about going to a new place.
"But at the same time, after that nostalgia, there was a lot of excitement. I'm excited to start something new in my career. Baseball is all about change, and I'm really looking forward to this change."
This is the first deal the Cardinals have made this season to add to the Major League club. Discussions between Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak and Brewers general manager Doug Melvin began this week, and for two days the clubs exchanged names.
The timing was critical, as St. Louis needed to make the acquisition before Sunday in order to ensure that Axford could be on its postseason roster.
Axford, 30, had a standout season for the Brewers in 2011, so impressive that he received votes for NL Cy Young and MVP Awards. He converted 49 consecutive regular-season save opportunities in '11 and into '12 and saved 106 games in parts of five seasons in Milwaukee. Axford posted a 1.95 ERA and struck out 86 in 73 2/3 innings in '11.
However, Axford has not had the same success since. He blew nine of his 44 save chances in '12 and finished the year with a 4.67 ERA. He has not saved a game this season and brings a 4.45 ERA in 62 games to the Cardinals. In his last 13 games, Axford has allowed 20 hits, 11 earned runs and four homers in 12 innings.
"There's a lot of experience there, a lot of upside," manager Mike Matheny said. "It's hard to forget that two years ago this guy was one of the top relievers in the game. I think there's some minor things that he's been doing that [pitching coach] Derek Lilliquist would like to see him continue to do that will help him be effective for us out of the backside of the 'pen."
Axford will not supplant setup man Trevor Rosenthal or closer Edward Mujica in the late innings, but the Cardinals can use him as a bridge to get there. That could free Michael Wacha up to move into the rotation and/or allow more flexibility with when Seth Maness is used.
"I think we'll just get him in there and see how it works," Matheny said. "He's a guy who has been in the back end of the 'pen and has been in tight situations and has been in the race before, too. I think all that is valuable to us."
Axford, who is making $5 million in '13, will be arbitration eligible after the season. At that time, the Cardinals can choose to non-tender the righty or work out a contract to keep him in St. Louis for another season.
One of the reasons Melvin was comfortable making the first Cardinals-Brewers trade in 10 years was because Milwakee was likely to let Axford go at the end of the year.
"Just like with the Brewers, I'll take every opportunity I can and do my best," Axford said. "I'm going to a team that's contending and is in first place in the division, and that's automatically going to light another fire in getting me going."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. Adam McCalvy contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.