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Fantasy Relief: Axford losing his command

Michael Hurcomb
Fantasy Writer
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John Axford entered 2012 with so much promise after finishing the 2011 season as the second-highest Fantasy scoring reliever in Head-to-Head formats and third-highest in Rotisserie leagues. He was the fourth-most drafted reliever in Rotisserie and fifth-most in Head-to-Head formats this spring.

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Sadly, Axford hasn't lived up to the expectations through the first half of the season. Through Monday, he was barely a top 30 Fantasy reliever in Head-to-Head leagues.

Axford had some rocky moments early in the season, but by the end of May he had just one blown save and a 3.26 ERA. Axford's struggles began in June. Last month, he posted a 9.00 ERA and three blown saves over 10 appearances.

The big shift in productivity was because Axford walked seven batters and allowed four home runs in 10 June innings. In his first 21 appearances (19 1/3 innings), Axford walked 11 batters and allowed no home runs. The walks didn't really start to hurt him until June.

A closer look at Axford's numbers last month show he had trouble with his secondary pitches. Axford's primary pitch is a four-seam fastball, with his secondary pitches being a curveball and slider. In June, Axford threw his curveball for a strike at a 48.6 percent rate and his slider at 50 percent, according to PitchFX data compiled by TexasLeaguers.com. To compare to 2011, Axford recorded strikes on 54.2 percent of his curveballs and 59.8 percent of his sliders. Through the first two months of this season, Axford had a strike rate of 52.4 percent on his curveball and 67.9 percent on his slider.

That's significant because the lack of command with his secondary pitches made Axford's fastball flat in June. He managed just an 8.6 percent whiff rate on his fastball in June, as opposed to a 10.7 rate through the first two months of the season.

Top non-closers Week 13 (H2H)
Player Points
1. Aaron Laffey, RP, Blue Jays 34
2. Luis Mendoza, RP, Royals 30.5
3. Lucas Harrell, RP, Astros 30.5
4. Michael Fiers, RP, Brewers 28
5. Chris Sale, RP, White Sox 24.5
6. Josh Collmenter, RP, Diamondbacks 24
7. Franklin Morales, RP, Red Sox 22.5
8. Andrew Cashner, RP, Padres 21.5
9. Josh Roenicke, RP, Rockies 19
10. Freddy Garcia, RP, Yankees 18.5

Axford seemed to be reversing his misfortunes in July after tossing two scoreless innings to open the month, allowing no walks and one hit. The PitchFX data shows that Axford has yet to throw a slider this month, firing 58 fastballs and eight curveballs. His strike rate on his fastball in July is 63.8 percent and whiff rate is 13.8 percent. His strike rate on his curveball is 50 percent and the in-play rate is zero percent. But his performance Wednesday somewhat tarnishes that idea.

It's unlikely, though, that Axford will completely scrap throwing a slider because it's been an effective pitch for him in the past. Even with the off month in June, Axford has a 21.7 percent whiff rate on his slider. Last season, Axford had a 59.8 percent strike rate and 12.2 percent whiff rate on his slider.

A few other troubling numbers for Axford this season have been a .312 BABIP, 26 percent line drive rate and 62.8 percent strand rate, which are all career lows for the 29-year-old hurler. Axford also has an 18.2 percent home run to fly ball ratio, which is beyond awful. The average is 9.5 percent and Axford has never been above 6.0 percent in his career.

Axford's ERA is 4.86 through 35 appearances, but his FIP is 3.72 and xFIP is 3.08, indicating his numbers should be better than what has transpired. The Brewers might fall out of contention in the second half, but I'm endorsing Axford as a buy-low candidate because better times appear on the horizon.

Closing Time

Each week we'll break down closer situations worthy of further examination ...

Seattle: Last week, I highlighted potential relievers on the trade market in July and mentioned former Mariners closer Brandon League in that group because of the emergence of Tom Wilhelmsen. However, The Seattle Times suggested Tuesday Wilhelmsen might be the better trade candidate than League, citing Wilhelmsen being under team control through 2017 as added value. The Times also points out Seattle has three potential closers in waiting in Stephen Pryor, Carter Capps and Steve Delabar, which could make Wilhelmsen expendable. I can comprehend what the Times is suggesting, but I'm not buying it. What could the M's really get for Wilhelmsen? Maybe a 'B' level prospect. I'm not sure the haul would be worth parting ways with an up-and-coming closer that doesn't hit arbitration until 2015. I wouldn't start worrying about Wilhelmsen losing Fantasy value just yet. He is still the M's closer and a viable option for saves.

Washington: Drew Storen (elbow) will begin a rehab assignment with Class A Potomac Thursday. He is expected to make four rehab appearances before being activated, which could happen after the All-Star break. But as we highlighted last week, manager Davey Johnson intends to keep Tyler Clippard in the closer's role, so unless those plans change, Storen is likely to be one of the most dropped players once he is no longer eligible to be stored on DL spots in Fantasy formats.

Top non-closers Week 13 (Rotisserie)
Player Rank
1. Freddy Garcia, RP, Yankees 35
2. Dale Thayer, RP, Padres 38
3. Shawn Kelley, RP, Mariners 40
4. David Hernandez, RP, Diamondbacks 46
5. Sean Burnett, RP, Nationals 52
6. Josh Roenicke, RP, Rockies 62
7. Andrew Miller, RP, Red Sox 69
8. Charlie Furbush, RP, Mariners 74
9. Vicente Padilla, RP, Red Sox 76
10. Brad Lincoln, RP, Pirates 78

Minnesota: Matt Capps (shoulder) is expected to begin a rehab assignment early next week with the hope of being activated off the disabled list following the All-Star break. Capps appears on track for a Week 15 (July 13-15) return. Glen Perkins and Jared Burton remain co-closers while Capps is sidelined.

Boston: Andrew Bailey is back to throwing again after suffering a setback with his surgically repaired thumb. The Red Sox will likely continue to proceed with caution and Bailey is likely at least a few weeks away from potentially making his season debut. But much like what Washington is doing with its closer situation, don't be surprised if Boston takes the same route. Manager Bobby Valentine might leave Alfredo Aceves in the closer's role once Bailey is cleared to return.

Call to the 'pen

Each week we'll break down pertinent Fantasy news with setup men and other relievers ...

Mike Dunn's banishment to the minors has paid off. After spending nearly a month at Triple-A, Dunn returned to the Marlins' bullpen in late June. He has since thrown seven perfect outings (six innings), which includes four strikeouts and three holds. Dunn's last three appearances through Monday have all come in the eighth inning of wins. Manager Ozzie Guillen said Dunn is pitching with "confidence" and the team is reciprocating the confidence by using Dunn is high-leverage situations. Dunn is emerging as a viable Fantasy option for holds ... Yankees reliever Joba Chamberlain (elbow, ankle) could go on a rehab assignment in a few weeks. Chamberlain has vowed to pitch in 2012 and it seems he is on track to do so. Chamberlain might get some setup work if he proves effective once off the disabled list, but there's no need to hold onto him in any Fantasy format. Chamberlain doesn't have the same Fantasy value he once did as a starter ... Former A's closer Brian Fuentes was designated for assignment Tuesday. Even with his recent struggles, it wouldn't surprise me if Fuentes ends up with another major-league job. However, he isn't expected to find another closer's job, so leave Fuentes off rosters ... Chad Qualls was designated for assignment by Philadelphia and was eventually dealt to the Yankees, but changing teams likely has hurt his Fantasy value. Qualls was seeing regular hold chances with the Phillies, but likely won't get that chance with the Yankees as long as David Robertson and Boone Logan are healthy ... Braves setup man Eric O'Flaherty is back to being a reliable Fantasy option. After recording his second blown save May 2 and watching his ERA balloon to 7.56, O'Flaherty has a 1.35 ERA, 10 holds and one blown save in his last 23 outings (20 innings). Continue to use O'Flaherty in leagues that reward for holds.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Michael Hurcomb at @CBSHurc . You can also send our staff an e-mail at fantasybaseball@cbsinteractive.com

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Player News
Masahiro Tanaka back from DL stint
by Al Melchior | Data Analyst
(12:12 pm ET) Masahiro Tanaka was activated from the 15-day disabled list in order to start Sunday's game for the Yankees against the Blue Jays. He has been out for more than two months with a partially torn UCL.

Sore shoulder keeps Nick Markakis sidelined
by Al Melchior | Data Analyst
(12:06 pm ET) Nick Markakis was not in the Orioles' starting lineup for Sunday's game against the Red Sox. He has not played since Tuesday, when he was hit in the shoulder by an Aaron Loup pitch.

According to MLB.com, X-rays showed that Markakis did not sustain any structural damage to his shoulder, but he continues to deal with soreness in the area where he was hit.


Welington Castillo returns from rib injury
by Al Melchior | Data Analyst
(11:56 am ET) After missing Saturday's game with a rib injury, catcher Welington Castillo was back in the Cubs' starting lineup for Sunday's contest against the Dodgers. Castillo sustained the injury in Friday's game.

Adam Lind still out with back issue
by Al Melchior | Data Analyst
(11:43 am ET) For the second game in a row, Adam Lind was out of the Blue Jays' starting lineup with a back injury. Dan Johnson got the start at first base for Sunday's game at the Yankees.

Lind remains day to day with the injury.


Nationals rest several regulars
by Al Melchior | Data Analyst
(11:36 am ET) For their Sunday matchup at the Marlins, the Nationals left Ian Desmond, Denard Span, Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos out of their starting lineup. Ryan Zimmerman, who made his return from a two-month hiatus due to a hamstring injury on Saturday, was also not in Sunday's lineup.

Kirk Nieuwenhuis ready to return for finale
by Al Melchior | Data Analyst
(11:22 am ET) After missing the last two games, Kirk Nieuwenhuis was in the Mets' starting lineup for Sunday's series finale at the Braves. Nieuwenhuis had been out due to passing a kidney stone on Thursday.

Dilson Herrera still out on Sunday
by Al Melchior | Data Analyst
(11:18 am ET) Dilson Herrera was out of the Mets' lineup for Sunday's game at the Braves. He exited Saturday's contest with a leg injury. Wilmer Flores got the start at second base in place of Herrera.

Robbie Erlin to fill in for Tyson Ross again
by Al Melchior | Data Analyst
(11:06 am ET) The San Diego Union-Tribune reports that Padres lefty Robbie Erlin will start in place of the injured Tyson Ross for Tuesday's game against the Rockies. He did the same on Thursday, as Ross missed his turn due to discomfort in his lower forearm.

It is not yet known if Ross will make another start before the end of the season.


David Ortiz takes a seat Sunday
by Al Melchior | Data Analyst
(10:52 am ET) David Ortiz was absent from the Red Sox's starting lineup for Sunday's game at the Orioles. Garin Cecchini got the nod as the team's designated hitter.

Braves duo remain out with injuries
by Al Melchior | Data Analyst
(10:43 am ET) On Sunday, for the third game in a row, both Evan Gattis (illness) and Jason Heyward (thumb) were out of the Braves' starting lineup. There is still no specific timetable for either's return, though the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Gattis took batting practice on Friday and may be available to pinch hit. They also reported that Heyward was not expected to play at all for Sunday's game against the Mets, but he could return for Monday's series opener against the Pirates.

 
 
 
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