Milwaukee Brewers: John Axford and The Cursed Closers Of Brewers Past
John Axford had an impressive debut season in 2010 when he filled in for Trevor Hoffman as the Milwaukee Brewers closer.
Equally impressive was his mustache which rivaled the infamous beard of Brian Wilson and revived memories of renowned Brewers closer and former Cy Young Award winner, Rollie Fingers.
Axford went 24-3 in save opportunities and compiled 76 K in only 58 innings for a 11.65 K/9—good for fourth best amongst closers. He maintained a 2.60 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in that time.
His performance was one of the few bright spots in the Brewers season and a relief considering the struggles of one of baseball's all-time greatest relievers.
Now John Axford has become the primary closer for the Milwaukee Brewers entering the 2011 season.
The promotion might seem like a glorious achievement for the longtime minor leaguer, but in reality, inheriting the Brewers closer role has been something of a curse over the last 10 years.
In fact, you might say it is career suicide as the majority of pitchers to have recorded a save for the team since 2001 have gone on to either immediately retire or suffer severe drop offs in performance.
There might be no such thing as curses in the real world, but in the superstitious sport of baseball they are most definitely real—just ask the Chicago Cubs—and this particular curse began with Curtis Leskanic.
Curtis Leskanic 2001
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Curtis Leskanic joined the Milwaukee Brewers in 2000 after seven seasons with the Colorado Rockies.
He took over the closer role in 2001 and had his best season that year when he recorded 17 saves without blowing a single opportunity.
Apparently his performance didn't impress the front office as he was sent down to the minor leagues prior to the 2002 season.
He returned for the 2003 season and spent time with the Brewers as well as the Kansas City Royals that year where he recorded two saves.
2004 would be his 11th and last season in the majors. That season Curtis Leskanic recorded two saves with the Royals and two saves with the Boston Red Sox before retiring at the end of the year.
Leskanic—the first to fall victim to the curse—coaches high school baseball these days and is an afterthought not only amongst baseball fans but most Milwaukee Brewers fans.
Mike DeJean 2002-2003
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Mike DeJean joined the Milwaukee Brewers in 2001 after four seasons with the Colorado Rockies and became the closer at the start of the 2002 season.
DeJean had modest numbers that season in terms of strikeouts, ERA and WHIP but was able to convert 27 of 30 save opportunities which was enough to earn him the role for 2003.
That season did not start out well as Mike DeJean went 18-8 in save opportunities with a 4.87 ERA and was later traded to the St. Louis Cardinals midway through the season.
He played two more full seasons in the major leagues for three different teams—Baltimore Orioles, New York Mets, Colorado Rockies—before retiring in the 2005 season.
Mike DeJean only recorded one more save after leaving the Milwaukee Brewers and saw his career averages plummet in that time.
Dan Kolb 2003-2004
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Dan Kolb took over the closer role for Mike DeJean midway through the 2003 season and finished the year off strong.
He went 21-1 in save opportunities and recorded 39 K in 41.1 innings with a 1.28 WHIP and 1.96 ERA.
Kolb returned in the 2004 season and continued his dominance with 39 saves, a 1.13 WHIP and 2.98 ERA. However, his K-Rate took a dramatic decline as he threw only 21 K in 57.1 innings.
The Milwaukee Brewers traded Kolb during the offseason to the Atlanta Braves where he took over the 9th inning for Bobby Cox and his squad.
Things couldn't have gone worse for Dan Kolb as his ERA ballooned to 5.93. He blew seven of 18 save opportunities that season and was not resigned by the team.
He returned to the Brewers in 2006 but recorded only one save while blowing two other opportunities.
After only seven seasons, Dan Kolb's career would come to an end with the Pittsburgh Pirates where he appeared in three games in 2007 with a 2.67 WHIP, 9.00 ERA and two strikeouts.
Derrick Turnbow 2005-2006
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Derrick Turnbow earned the closer role in 2005 after Dan Kolb was shipped off to Atlanta and did not disappoint.
He was absolutely dominant as he finished the season with 39 saves along with 64 K and a 1.08 WHIP and 1.74 ERA.
His 2005 performance convinced the Milwaukee Brewers to sign Turnbow to a three-year $6.5 million extension that would buy out his first two arbitration seasons. It finally looked like the Brewers had their man.
Turnbow didn't slow down to start the 2006 season. He had a save in the first four games of the year and was selected to the All-Star Game. Then it all came crashing down.
In July of that season, he went 1-5 in save opportunities and posted a 21.32 ERA prompting manager Ned Yost to remove him from the role.
Turnbow had some success in 2007 as a setup man recording 33 holds and throwing 84 strikeouts but it all fell apart in 2008 when he pitched in a total of 6.1 innings and allowed 11 runs for a 15.63 ERA.
Derrick Turnbow never pitched in the major leagues again. He passed through the Texas Rangers and Florida Marlins minor league systems before retiring last March after only eight seasons in the major leagues.
Francisco Cordero 2006-2007
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Francisco Cordero managed to avoid the Brew Crew Closer Curse as he finished off the 2006 season strong for the team and went 16-2 in save opportunities.
Cordero entered the 2007 season as the closer and went on to convert his first 22 save opportunities that year. He was selected to the All-Star Game and finished the season with 44 saves, a 1.11 WHIP and 2.98 ERA.
During the offseason the team was unable to come to terms on a contract with Cordero and he left to join the Cincinnati Reds for a four-year $46 million contract.
He has gone on to enjoy three consecutive seasons of 34 or more saves for the Reds and appeared in the 2009 All-Star Game.
No one knows exactly how Francisco Cordero was able to avoid the curse. It is one of the true mysteries of Milwaukee sports. No matter how he did it, he should thank his lucky stars every night.
Eric Gagne 2008
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Doug Melvin took an aggressive approach to acquiring his new closer when he signed Eric Gagne to a one-year $10 million contract.
Based on Gagne's dominant seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers in recent years it was a high risk with the potential of high reward.
The move did not pay off.
Gagne was removed from the closer role in early May of that season after blowing three of six save opportunities. He transitioned between the closer role and a setup role throughout most of the first half of the season before Salomon Torres was eventually given the 9th inning.
Eric Gagne finished the season with a mere 10 saves along with 38 strikeouts, a 1.47 WHIP and 5.44 ERA. Gagne never threw another major league pitch again.
He pitched in the Can-Am League in Canada in 2009 and briefly attempted a comeback in spring training last year with the Los Angeles Dodgers before retiring in March 2010.
Salomon Torres 2008
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Salomon Torres took over the closer role from Eric Gagne midway through the 2008 season and had a solid year for the Milwaukee Brewers.
Torres appeared in 80 games and went 28-7 in save opportunities.
He ended up being an instrumental piece in the team's Wild Card run and record the save in their only postseason victory against the Philadelphia Phillies.
However, at the end of the season, Torres surprised the Brewers by retiring.
While Salomon Torres sited age and family as the reasons for his departure from baseball it is far more likely that he had become familiar with the closer curse and decide to leave before falling victim to it himself.
Trevor Hoffman 2009-2010
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Trevor Hoffman joined the Milwaukee Brewers in 2009 after 16 seasons with the San Diego Padres where he recorded 552 saves.
Hoffman started the season injured and didn't make his first appearance until late April of that year. Once he got on the mound he returned to his Hall of Fame form and went 37-4 in save opportunities and was selected to his seventh All-Star Game.
His excellent season earned him a one-year $8 million contract for 2010 with an option for the 2011 season.
The option would not be accepted as Hoffman suffered mightily to start the season.
He lost all control of his changeup forcing him to rely on his mid 80 mph fastball to get out hitters. It didn't go well and he blew four of his first seven save opportunities while allowing 13 runs in 9 innings.
He was relegated to a setup role in June allowing John Axford to take reigns of the closer role for the majority of the remainder of the season.
Trevor Hoffman did end the season on a good note as he was able to earn his 600th career save in September against the St. Louis Cardinals.
The 2010 season was undoubtedly the worst of his otherwise historic career and prompted him to retire during the offseason.
Time will tell if John Axford is able to buck the trends and get this decade off to a good start for the Milwaukee Brewers but if I were him I would carry a rabbit foot or four leaf clover wherever I went.