Pirates notebook: Team claims Indians' Axford off waivers
DETROIT — After searching for bullpen help the past several weeks, the Pirates on Thursday claimed former closer John Axford off waivers from the Cleveland Indians.
Axford is expected to join the team Friday in Washington for the start of a three-game series against the Nationals.
The move is a straight waiver claim, so the Indians will not get a player in exchange.
Axford, a 31-year-old right-hander, will add a veteran presence to the bullpen. Over five seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers, Axford racked up 105 saves. He was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals on Aug. 30, 2013.
In last year's National League Division Series, Axford tossed 1 1⁄3 scoreless, hitless innings against the Pirates.
“He's a guy who's pitched in big situations and in big games,” general manager Neal Huntington said. “He's a good addition to our bullpen.”
To clear a spot on the 40-man roster, infielder Matt Hague was designated for assignment.
The Pirates still must make a move to get Axford on the active roster. It's likely reliever Stolmy Pimentel will go on the disabled list due to lower-body soreness.
Axford went 2-3 with a 3.92 ERA and a 1.47 WHIP in 49 outings with the Indians. He averaged 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings pitched but also averaged 6.2 walks.
“He's been trending upward lately,” Huntington said. “Our scouts like his stuff. The walks are one of the challenges we'll have to tackle. What are the reasons for it? Is it (American) League related? Ballpark related? Command related?”
Axford is owed about $1.1 million in salary for this season and has two years of arbitration eligibility remaining. Huntington said the two years of team control were not a motivation for the move.
“This is a short-term deal that could have longer term benefits,” Huntington said.
Hague hit .267 with 14 home runs and 66 RBIs in 93 games this year with Triple-A Indianapolis. The Pirates would take him back if he gets through waivers, but Hague also would have the option to refuse an assignment back to Indy and declare free agency.
“This was not an easy decision,” Huntington said. “We had thought about making him a September call-up.”
Walker set to return
Neil Walker was in the on-deck circle to pinch hit Thursday when the final out was made, so he still has not made a game appearance since Saturday, when he struck out as a pinch-hitter.
“We're optimistic he might be more than that (Friday),” Hurdle said, indicating Walker might be ready to start against the Nationals.
Due to a sore lower back, Walker has started just one game since Aug. 2, when his back locked up during batting practice. On Thursday, Walker again took batting practice on the field, fielded grounders — and for the first time in a while ran the bases at full speed.
“A normal day's routine,” Walker said. “Everything felt good.”
Pimentel had a brief, disastrous outing Wednesday. The righty faced four batters, got zero outs and was charged with three runs.
“He didn't throw any strikes,” manager Hurdle said, shaking his head. “No quality strikes.”
It was the third straight outing in which Pimentel was scored upon. In that span, he allowed six runs in three innings (18.00 ERA, 3.33 WHIP, 1.350 OPS allowed).
Despite his struggles in the pen, Pimentel might still have a future as a starter. In three games this year when he's pitched multiple-innings, he has a 0.73 ERA.
Pimentel, 24, is out of minor league options.
Why not Mazzaro?
Vin Mazzaro twice has cleared waivers this year and wound up back with Triple-A Indianapolis. In 26 outings with Indy, the righty reliever has a 2.81 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP.
Why wasn't Mazzaro in Pittsburgh? Some of the answer lies in his peripheral stats at Indy. Mazzaro's 1.75 strikeout-to-walk ratio is below his career average. He's averages 7.6 hits per nine innings pitched — not alarmingly high but still significant.
Hurdle said it's also important to scout a player beyond the digits on his stat sheet.
“He's one guy we've had conversations about,” Hurdle said. “We're looking for guys whose stuff is crisp. That's always the challenge in evaluating Triple-A performance versus anticipated major league performance.
“The conversations I have with (Indy's) coaching staff and (manager) Dean (Treanor) weigh more than the numbers. We can grab all the Triple-A numbers we want, but when you plug guys in up here, it just doesn't match up. In my opinion, there's never been a bigger gap than Triple-A competition and major league competition.”
Martin reaches 1,000
Russell Martin collected his 1,000th career hit Wednesday, a double to right field in the third inning off Tigers rookie Buck Farmer. Martin is the 13th Canadian-born player to reach the milestone.
“I'm not a big milestone guy, but I did get the baseball,” said Martin, who's riding an 11-game hitting streak.
How about, say, 3,000 hits?
“That would be something,” Martin said, then laughed. “I could do that. It's only 50 hits a year for 40 years.”
Reliever Ernesto Frieri cleared waivers and was sent to Indianapolis. Frieri, who had a 10.13 ERA in 14 outings with the Pirates, was designated for assignment Aug. 8 when Pedro Alvarez was activated off the bereavement list. ... Right-hander Adrian Sampson was promoted to Indy and started Thursday night against Toledo. At Double-A Altoona, he went 10-5 with a 2.55 ERA. “We felt it was a good time for him to taste the next level,” Huntington said. “Hopefully it can jump-start him for next year.” ... The Pirates signed right-handed reliever Matt Nevarez, who was closing for the independent Wichita Wingnuts. Nevarez, 27, was assigned to Altoona. In 35 games with the Wingnuts, he had 23 saves and a 1.58 ERA. Nevarez was the Texas Rangers' 10th-round pick in 2005 and had Tommy John surgery in 2007.