Can John Axford repeat his stellar 2010 season?
In 2010, veteran closer Trevor Hoffman struggled following his brilliant 2009 campaign and rookie John Axford was promoted to fill his place. Axford experienced remarkable success in relief of Hoffman.
Can Axford carry over his success from last season? Brewers fans hope so, but to do so he will have to break a recent trend of one-and-done for Brewers closers.
Sometimes it seems that the Brewers have been under a closer's curse since 2004. Since Dan Kolb's run of success as the Brewers closer in 2003-04, the Brewers have had one sensational closer every year, with the exception of 2006, which was a transitional year. Each season it has been a different player.
The inability of the Brewers to maintain continuity in the closer role, despite several stellar performances in individual seasons, has been a fascinating (and frustrating) phenomenon to observe.
Let's review the history of Brewers firemen since the 2003 season.
Dan Kolb was the Brewers' "Unsung Hero" in 2003. He pitched in just 37 games, but converted 21 of 23 save opportunities and posted a sparkling 1.98 ERA. In 2004, he had another incredible season, going to the All-Star game and putting up a sub-3.00 ERA while logging 39 saves in 44 chances.
However, the Brewers traded Kolb to the Braves during the offseason, and the Brewers have suffered under a closer's curse ever since. No Brew Crew closer has been able to put together back-to-back successful seasons.
How will Brewers closer John Axford perform in 2011?
At first, things seemed to be just fine. An unheralded and wild-haired Derrick Turnbow came out of nowhere in 2005 to record 39 saves in 43 opportunities. He brought excitement to the stands every time he pitched as fans cheered every time his fastball hit 100 mph on the radar gun. He turned in an incredible 1.74 ERA and won the Brewers Top Newcomer Award.
In 2006, Turnbow started off with the same stuff, but was a bit shaky at times. He was named to the All-Star team mainly on the strength of his 2005 season, but he quickly fell completely apart. He soon lost his closer job, and his ERA ballooned all the way to 6.87, FOUR times his ERA of the year before.
Desperate for help, the Brewers traded for Francisco Cordero from the Texas Rangers. Cordero finished the 2006 season even better than had Turnbow pitched in 2005, with a 1.69 ERA for the Brewers.
In 2007, Cordero picked up where he had left off and gave the Brewers a full season of dependable ninth-inning shutdowns. He converted 44 of 51 save opportunities with a 2.98 ERA and made the NL All-Star team.
But the Brewers, seemingly determined to only get one full season out of any closer, didn't sign him and he went to the Reds as a free agent in 2008, where he has continued to be a star closer.
The Brewers acquired long-time Dodgers closer Eric Gagne for the 2008 season. He ended up as a bust, just like Turnbow became in 2006 and Hoffman would be in 2010, except Gagne didn't even give the Brewers one good season. His $10 million contract was a total loss for the very beginning, and Gagne lost the closer's job within a month of Opening Day.
Veteran Salomon Torres filled the gap admirably, and helped the Brewers to their first playoff berth in 26 years with 28 saves in 35 chances and a 3.49 ERA. But once again the Brewers were left searching for a closer, as Torres retired following the season.
During the offseason, the Brewers again signed a big-name free agent to be their closer. This time it was Padres legend Trevor Hoffman, and in 2009 it worked out beautifully.
Hoffman pitched one of the best seasons of his career, converting 37 of 41 save opportunities along with an ERA of 1.83. He was named to the NL All-Star team and won the Brewers Top Newcomer Award.
But Hoffman was not immune to the closer's curse. The 2010 season was a total disaster from the very beginning, as Hoffman struggled with his command and got hit hard.
He lost the closer's role to John Axford, who was promoted to the majors in mid-May. Although Hoffman eventually regained some of his usual form later in the season, he got only a few more save opportunities, finally reaching 600 career saves on September 7.
Axford had a spectacular start to his Brewers career, converting each of his first 14 save opportunities and 24 of 27 overall. He struck out 76 batters in 58 innings and put up an ERA of 2.48. Like Turnbow and Hoffman before him, Axford won the Brewers Top Newcomer Award.
Can Axford avoid the fate of those two closers and with a successful 2011 season? Brewers fans hope so, but it won't be easy.
It is nearly impossible to project the consistency of closers. They face more pressure than any other player on a game-to-game basis. It is their job to shut down the other team with the game on the line, and handling that pressure is one of the most difficult tasks in all of sports.
There are very few Mariano Riveras in baseball, closers who dependably perform their duties year-in and year-out. Even Hoffman, one of the top five closers of all time, eventually had a breakdown season.
If Axford can break the closer's curse in 2011 and come repeat the success he enjoyed in 2010, he can begin to establish himself as a top-level closer. Everyone involved with the Brewers organization hopes Axford will be the Brewers closer for years to come.
He certainly has the talent to do so; the question is whether he can handle the mental challenges that are unique to the closer's role. But if the pressure becomes too much and history repeats itself for the Brewers, Axford could end up struggling in his sophomore season with the club.
Hopefully that won't be the case, but if it is, Milwaukee fans will have to hope another pitcher can step in and provide a year of solid closing for the Brew Crew.