John Axford was merely a backup plan at closer for the A's in 2016. Though his control improved, his walk rate remained high (4.1 per nine) and he posted the lowest strikeout rate of his career (8.2 K/9). He hasn't posted an ERA lower than 3.95 since 2011. That tells a story of how inefficiently he's worked: To go along with his inability to stave off free passes, he got ahead 0-1 just 50.9 percent of the time. Even with all these weaknesses, his fastball average remains healthy (95.6 mph), and his 144 career saves could earn him future chances if he can convince Oakland management to focus on nostalgia. That was enough to net him 15 holds last year, which increases his value in leagues that count the statistic. Still, the A's are developing several young closer-type alternatives that likely will keep the shaky right-handed veteran out of the saves picture.
Axford has struggled over five appearances this spring, generating a 5.06 ERA, 2.44 WHIP and 2:5 K:BB across 5.3 innings. The veteran reliever, who was a valuable part of the bullpen last season with 15 holds and three saves, has endured some rough sledding this spring and hasn't taken the mound since March 17. Axford was also considered to be a contender for the closer role at one point, and did notably notch 25 saves as recently as 2015 while with the Rockies. However, it would appear that incumbent ninth-inning specialist Ryan Madson and newcomer Santiago Casilla -- who has a solid late-inning track record in his own right -- are the frontrunners for the position at present.
Axford was credited with his second hold of spring in Sunday's 5-4 Cactus League win over the Mariners, surrendering one hit and one walk over one inning. He also recorded a strikeout. The veteran righty has fired two scoreless innings this spring, and he remains in the mix for potential save opportunities in the coming season in what could be a closer-by-committee approach. Axford was originally slated to pitch on Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic but eventually withdrew, leaving him with additional opportunities to compete for a robust bullpen role this spring.
Axford will not play for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic, John Hickey of Bay Area News Group reports. It's a reversal from his original plans. Joe Stiglich of CSN Bay Area reports that Axford is physically healthy, according to A's manager Bob Melvin. He is one of four relievers in consideration for saves in Oakland, though he probably ranks behind Ryan Madson, Sean Doolittle and Santiago Casilla.
Axford will play for Team Canada in this year's WBC, Jane Lee of MLB.com reports. The veteran reliever, who compiled 15 holds and three saves (in 10 chances) along with a 6-4 record and 3.97 ERA across 65.2 innings in 2016, will be part of a pitching staff that will include fellow major leaguers Andrew Albers and Kevin Chapman.
Axford notched only his second save of the season Wednesday against the Orioles, striking out one and allowing one hit in a scoreless ninth. Ryan Madson pitched Monday and Tuesday, so he was unavailable, leaving Axford a rare save chance. He's the clear No. 2 man in the Oakland bullpen while Sean Doolittle (shoulder) remains on the DL.