DUNEDIN, Fla. – A year ago, when John Axford didn’t reach an agreement on a minor-league deal with the Toronto Blue Jays until Feb. 9, he wasn’t surprised. Coming off a miserable 2017 in which he allowed 16 runs and 17 walks in 21 innings before he was designated for assignment and released by the Oakland Athletics in July, the market wasn’t going to exactly come to him.
This time around, coming off a solid year within which he logged 51 innings over 45 games – including one opener-style start – for the Toronto Blue Jays before a broken fibula limited him to five outings with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he figured things would be different.
Yet when he arrived at Toronto Blue Jays camp Saturday having just completed a minor-league deal that will pay him $1.65 million if he makes the team, it was a full week beyond when he signed a year ago, the latest date of his career.
After 2017, “that was expected for me personally. Seeing how the rest of the market went, I wouldn’t say I didn’t pay attention to it, but I just knew where I was personally,” said Axford. “This year, coming around and having pitched a full season, missing part of the year with the fractured fibula, I don’t think I expected it to be as late as maybe it was this year. But it seems to be a sign of the times and the way things are rolling. We’ll just see how the trend continues.”
Though it took longer than expected, Axford ultimately ended up where he wanted to be, after weeks of redirecting every expression of interest from another team relayed by agent Dan Horwits back to the Blue Jays.
The 35-year-old didn’t leave the outcome to chance, either, making sure to speak directly with both Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins last month at Baseball Canada’s annual awards banquet in Toronto.
He lives in Burlington, Ont., now and loved his experience playing for his hometown team so much that he wanted to make sure they both knew how much he wanted to come back.
“For me, it’s home,” Axford said. “Spending as much time as I did with the family and friends and my kids was perfect and ideal. It was really a dream last year. I wanted to get back in that situation any way that I could. …
“Everything kind of seemed to be coming together towards the end there, and there was a possibility of being elsewhere, but this is where I wanted to be and fortunately the terms and everything worked out that way.”
Axford returns to a Blue Jays team with a few familiar faces and plenty of new ones. In the bullpen, he joins closer Ken Giles, free-agent addition David Phelps and Ryan Tepera as potential late-game options for manager Charlie Montoyo.
The way things currently stand, he’s the oldest player in Blue Jays camp, set to turn 36 on Apr. 1, and part of what he brings is maturity and experience and a good way about him that can be useful on a roster with the potential to be as young as this one.
The mentorship he received as a rookie breaking through with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2009/10 “was something I really liked. I had LaTroy Hawkins. I had Trevor Hoffman, some guys that pitched in some really big and great games and pitched for a long time in their careers. Listening to them and taking in as much as you could as a rookie and just learning as much as you can whether you’re in spring training or in the big-leagues, I felt that was personally one of the best things that I could have had and it’s really helped me get to where I am in my career.”
Now he gets the chance to pay that forward, on the team he waited for all off-season.