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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
Wade Miley struggles with control, but manages good start
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(7:02 pm ET) Diamondbacks pitcher Wade Miley struggled with his control Thursday, but still managed a strong start.

Miley allowed eight hits over 6 2/3 scoreless innings. He struck out four and walked six during the outing. Wiley worked his way out of trouble a number of times during the game. The Nationals put two men on base in each of the first three innings, but Miley kept them from scoring. Miley was able to pitch out of a bases-loaded situation in the fifth, striking out Adam LaRoche. He again escaped the sixth after putting two men on base. 

Miley went up against Gio Gonzalez, who kept Arizona off the scoreboard. Miley picked up a no-decision for his efforts. He’ll take on the Dodgers in his next start.


Kennys Vargas' stock going up
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(6:59 pm ET) I've got to hand it to Al Melchior: His predictions this year have been spot-on.

To say I didn't like Kennys Vargas would be inaccurate. Back on Aug. 5, I touted him under the headline "Kennys Vargas could surprise people." But I wasn't willing to endorse him over Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce, as Al did Thursday morning on the Fantasy Baseball Today podcast.

So of course that afternoon, Vargas goes 3 for 4 with a homer. The timing is incredible.

I'm still not willing to endorse him over Morales, who has a steady track record, or Pearce, who CBSSports.com Baseball Insider Jon Heyman spoke enthusiastically about on Thursday's Fantasy Baseball Today, but he's now officially surprised people. No "could" about it.

Given his strikeout rate, his batting average could be in for a steep regression, but I think Vargas deserves at least as much hype as C.J. Cron got earlier this season. His ownership rate reached 56 percent at one point. Vargas' is currently 35.


Kennys Vargas goes deep Thursday
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(6:59 pm ET) Twins designated hitter Kennys Vargas went yard Thursday against the Indians. 

Vargas struck in the bottom of the fourth inning. He took a 93 mph sinker from Corey Kluber out to left for a solo shot. Vargas would also double and single during the outing. He finished 3 for 4, with two runs scored and one RBI. 


Wirfin Obispo outrighted Thursday
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(6:38 pm ET) Pirates pitcher Wirfin Obispo has been outrighted to Triple-A.

Obispo was recently designated for assignment, and accepted an option to the minors. He's posted a 3.80 ERA over two minor-league levels.


Zach Walters on the verge of mattering
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(6:36 pm ET) For the fourth time with the Indians and the seventh time in 72 big-league at-bats this year, Zach Walters homered Thursday. And judging by his 29 homers in 487 at-bats at Triple-A last year and his 17 homers in 268 at-bats at Triple-A this year, it's something he'll continue to do.

Though he's been playing DH for the Indians, Walters' most important attribute is that he's eligible at shortstop. Offensive production as a whole is scarce at the position, and power hitting especially.

So it's a match made in Fantasy heaven, at least in theory -- the same one that had Fantasy owners flocking to Javier Baez upon his arrival.

But while Baez has long been touted as a face-of-the-franchise type, Walters was just a spare part for the Nationals -- one easily expended at the trade deadline. While the disparity no doubt says something about Walters' upside, it may say even more about his downside. Quite simply, his shortcomings may prove to be more than he can overcome.

He's a swing-at-anything type, striking out more than 100 times more than he walked at Triple-A last year. He hit only .253 as a result, which doesn't bode well for his chances in the majors. If you need cheap homers, he's a sneaky way to get them out of a middle infield spot. Just don't expect much more than a .200 batting average from him.


Zach Walters officially on home run binge
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(6:35 pm ET) Indians infielder Zach Walters continued his home run binge Thursday against the Twins. 

Walters struck in the fifth inning. He took an 89 mph cutter from Phil Hughes out to right for the solo shot. He finished 1 for 3, with one run scored and one RBI. Walters struck out in his other two at-bats. Walters has now homered in four of his last eight games.


Stolmy Pimentel to start rehab assignment Thursday
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(6:20 pm ET) Pirates reliever Stolmy Pimentel will begin a rehab assignment Thursday, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Pimentel will throw one inning with the Double-A club in Altoona. He'll start Thursday's game and toss an inning. Pimentel has been out since August 13 with an ankle injury. He's posted a 5.40 ERA over 31 2/3 innings. 


Brandon Belt says he'll be back this season
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(6:14 pm ET) Giants first baseman Brandon Belt said he expects to be back before the end of the season, according to 95.7 The Game.

Belt will be re-evaluated in three weeks. He's been out since August 6 due to concussion-related issues. Belt has hit .237/.296/.446 over 186 at-bats. 


Brandon McCarthy hitting his stride
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(6:11 pm ET) Brandon McCarthy has had a wild career, hasn't he? Between the minor-league accolades, the early struggles with the White Sox and Rangers, the eventual breakthrough with the Athletics, the career-threatening head injury and the disastrous stay in Arizona, nailing down just who he is has been an exercise in futility.

Which is why I don't mind just riding the wave with him.

The signs for what he's doing now where there even before joining the Yankees. He may have had a 3-10 record and 5.01 ERA in 18 starts with the Diamondbacks, but he also had a 3.82 FIP, which estimates what a pitcher's ERA really should be. And that FIP would have been even lower if not for a suspiciously high home run rate for a pitcher who induces as many ground balls as he does.

I'll admit I didn't put much stock in that argument at the time of the trade, believing McCarthy's FIP was inflated by a couple of high-strikeout games earlier in the season and that the home runs would only increase in Yankee Stadium. Instead, the strikeouts have become more frequent and the home runs less frequent.

It culminated with a complete-game shutout Thursday afternoon against the Astros, his fifth start in eight as a Yankee with seven or more strikeouts. Looks like the Athletics version of McCarthy is back.


Angels acquire Gordon Beckham from White Sox
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(5:40 pm ET) The Angels have acquired second baseman Gordon Beckham from the White Sox Thursday, according to the Los Angeles Times

Beckham has hit .221/.263/.336 over 390 at-bats. In return, the White Sox will receive a player to be named later or cash. 


 
 
 
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