Just before the post-season eligibility deadline expires, the Cardinals acquired right hander John Axford from the Milwaukee Brewers. In return, the Brewers will receive a player to be named later.
The initial reaction to this deal should be largely positive. Axford is something of a veteran, although he remains arbitration eligible through the 2016 season. A quick glance at his 2012 and 2013 numbers could send you running for shelter, but a closer look tells a much different, ok – slightly different story. No, it is not perfect, but there is a silver lining to be found.
OK, clearly Axford is not the pitcher today that he was in 2011. If he were, he would still be pitching in Milwaukee, signed to a long contract and the Brewers would not be bringing up the rear of the NL Central. Oddly, these numbers remind me of another pitcher ….
Those are the numbers for Fernando Salas.
Getting back to Axford, there is no way to sugar coat the performance. Where he was very effective in 2011, batters are just getting more hits off him today, and that can be alarming. Not only that, they are hitting more home runs (which says they are hitting him harder, more alarm bells). But, there are two things that should make you step back and relax, if just a teeny bit. His strikeout rate is still good (roughly 1 per inning) and he has only given up 4 home runs in the last three months – one of those was in Colorado and two were in Cincinnati. Four more were hit in his first three outings. That leaves two unaccounted for, and I can live with that.
That does not hide an atrocious hit rate, but that can be mitigated a bit by how Mike Matheny chooses to use Axford. Bringing Axford in to start an inning instead of in the middle of a jam may be the difference between a good and bad outing.
On the balance, I think this is a very shrewd acquisition. It bolsters the back of the bullpen so the Cardinals don’t have to rely on Michael Blazek or Keith Butler. It also adds some cheap insurance in the event that Edward Mujica’s back is more serious than has been reported – yeah, like that’s never happened before with the Cardinals. In the end, this deal may be judged by the Player to be Named Later, and that’s what we are here to talk about today.
Could John Axford be the Player to be Named Later in his own trade ? It has happened before.
Tragedy and the Emergency Trade
This particular story starts the day before, in what can only be described as one of the worst days in Cardinals history.
Things were beginning to look up for the ’67 Redbirds as newcomers Orlando Cepeda and Roger Maris were having a huge impact. Cepeda was like a double shot of espresso, giving the team an energy that we hadn’t seen in a long time. Maris was the perfect complement, adding a cool professionalism and dedication to basic baseball fundamentals (catch, throw, move runners up, run smartly). The team had even overcome some early season adversity when Ray Washburn missed a month after taking a line drive off his pitching hand. There was even talk of the National League Pennant returning to St. Louis.
All that changed when Roberto Clemente hit a line drive off Bob Gibson’s leg, breaking it just above the ankle. With Gibson out for at least two months, the Cardinals had to shuffle their pitching staff, and quickly.
The only minor league option at the time was Jim Cosman. Cosman had already been used when Washburn hit the disabled list. He was fantastic in his first outing, but had control issues in his subsequent appearances. It was not just the walks, Cosman was hitting opposing batters. Not a good thing to do when you threw in the mid to upper 90s. Cosman was not an option this time.
Cardinals manager, Red Schoendienst, and general manager, Stan Musial, had four days to figure this out before Gibson’s spot in the rotation were up again. While it was never a consideration to replace Gibson with another elite starter, even replacement level pitchers were unavailable. Fortunately, the Cardinals quickly found a solution for the rotation in Nelson Briles, but that opened a hole in the bullpen. Replacement level relievers were much easier to come by, as Stan would soon find out.
Jack Lamabe to the Rescue
On July 16, the Mets were coming into town for a three game series. They were already 17 1/2 game out of first place, so they became the perfect trade partner for the Cardinals. A youth movement was already underway with young pitchers such as Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan, so the Mets were willing to part with one of their veteran right handers, Jack Lamabe. I’ve already written about Lamabe’s incredible 1967 finish, and you can read that here. The more interesting part of the story is what happened as a result of this trade.
With Don Cardwell coming off the disabled list, it gave the Mets some time to reshuffle their pitching staff as well. Danny Frisella would eventually replace Lamabe in the bullpen, and that’s where things get interesting.
For their troubles, the Mets initially received Jim Cosman, but only as a summer rental to fill a spot in their AAA bullpen. It gave the Mets sufficient time to evaluate Cosman, and the Cardinals hoped a change of scenery would do for Cosman what it did for Dick Hughes a year earlier. In 11 appearances with the Jacksonville Suns, including 6 starts, Cosman posted a 2-2 record with a 3.40 ERA. Not bad, but not what either team had hoped for.
Meanwhile, Lamabe was being everything the Cardinals had hoped for, and more. His August performance was one of the greatest for a reliever in Cardinals history and it took Orlando Cepeda turning in a Hall of Fame performance that month to top him for National League Player of the Month honors. Lamabe came in second in voting.
When the dust finally settled on the 1967 season, the Cardinals had another championship trophy for the display case, thanks in big part to Jack Lamabe, but they still had to settle up on the July trade. And here is where things get really strange.
And to be Named Later
Apparently, Lamabe was one of the players on the “To be Named Later” list. That’s right, the Mets offered up Lamabe for, well, Lamabe. The Mets had already returned Jim Cosman, who would make one last attempt with the Cardinals in spring of 1968. That left Lamabe and one other pitcher. The decision was now in the hands of the Cardinals.
Impressed by what they had seen in Lamabe, the Cardinals sent another fan favorite back to New York, Al Jackson. Finally playing for a good team, Jackson had shown what he was capable of, and had a most impressive season with the Cardinals. That they were willing to give Jackson back to the Mets told you a lot about what they thought of Lamabe and what role he might play in the upcoming season.
Ironically, that would not play out as the Cardinals had hoped. After a rough spring, Lamabe did not make the Cardinals roster at the start of the season. He would make one start for Tulsa while the Cardinals found him a new home, a complete game shutout. Shortly after that impressive outing, he would be traded to the Cubs, where he would finish his major league career.
Could That Happen Again ?
Probably not, but it is possible. In the Jack Lamabe era of baseball, general managers were more gentlemen than the competitors they are today. They would routinely trade players within the league, and once divisional play was introduced in 1969, within the division. While it would drive CBA attorneys crazy today, they would also loan players to other teams, most often in the minor leagues. That was what ultimately led to Jack Lamabe being one of the players to be named later in his own trade.
No, that is unlikely to happen in the game today. But consider that Axford is still a relatively young pitcher that still has a lively arm. He is still under team control through the end of the 2016 season. The Brewers 2013 season has been over since mid-May and they have been looking ahead to 2014 for some time now. If there was ever a time where we would see something as crazy as the Lamabe for Lamabe trade, this could be it.
We will know more following the season. If nothing else, it has given us a chance to look back into Cardinals history for another of those magical moments. Strange, but magical to be sure.