Cardinals obtain reliever Axford from Brewers

ST. LOUIS — The Cardinals traded for a Brewers right-hander Friday morning, but he was not old friend Kyle Lohse.

The price for John Axford, though, does not figure to be nearly as high for St. Louis as a deal would for Lohse. The Cardinals will send the Brewers a player to be named for Axford, who is making $5 million this year and will be eligible for arbitration in the off-season.

Axford, 30, had a strong run as the Brewers’ closer in 2011 but lost that role early this season and since has slipped further down the Brewers’ bullpen pecking order. Even though his velocity has dropped slightly this season, he still fits in with the Cardinals’ power bullpen. Axford’s fastball average is 95.2 mph, one mph less than a year ago.

Though manager Mike Matheny will not address Axford’s role with his new team until later Friday, expect the tall Canadian to slot in somewhere behind Edward Mujica and Trevor Rosenthal. It would be somewhat surprising, in fact, if he sees as many high-leverage situations as rookies Seth Maness and Kevin Siegrist.

Axford’s numbers don’t stack up with the top Cardinals relievers. He enjoyed a bounce-back first half, but since the break he has a 6.19 ERA and .313 batting average allowed in 16 outings.

After he averaged 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings last year, Axford’s K/9 ratio has dropped to 8.9 in 2013. He also has lowered his walks-per-nine ratio, from a problematic 5.1 to a little less troubling 3.8.

A decline in control has been the main reason behind Axford’s struggles since his breakout 2011, when he converted 46 of 48 save opportunities with a 1.95 ERA.

“He has an above-average fastball and a good curve, but his command is too erratic to handle the ninth inning,” a veteran scout said Friday morning. “If the choice is Rosenthal or Axford (on nights when Mujica is unavailable), I’m going with Rosenthal.”

Axford has served as a setup man for Jim Henderson much of the season but lately has been working mostly when the Brewers are behind. He has developed the ability to work multiple innings, too. Three times since the break, Axford has turned in scoreless two-inning outings, including one such performance (his most recent) last week against the Cardinals.

He last pitched Wednesday, when he worked a scoreless inning at Pittsburgh. If the Brewers informed Axford of the trade Thursday night, he won’t have far to travel to join his new team Friday, when the Cardinals open a three-game series at PNC Park.

At his best, Axford could give the Cardinals’ bullpen the same kind of lift provided by deadline acquisitions Mujica and Octavio Dotel the past two seasons. Because he will be added to the roster before Sept. 1, Axford would be eligible to pitch in the postseason.

If nothing else, his arrival gives Matheny a veteran reliever who is accustomed to a heavy workload. Axford is on pace for his third consecutive season with at least 70 outings.

Axford’s presence lessens the need to keep rookie Michael Wacha in the bullpen. With an opening in the rotation for Tuesday, the Cardinals can add Wacha to their options along with Carlos Martinez and Tyler Lyons.

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