John Axford had other choices where he could pitch next season. The Indians closed the deal.
Axford, who had 46 saves for Milwaukee in 2011 but lost his closer's job last season and was traded to St. Louis, finalized a $4.5 million, one-year contract Thursday and will close for Cleveland in 2014.
The 30-year-old Axford had other teams interested in signing him, but he decided to join the Indians because of their turnaround in 2013, a strong clubhouse and manager Terry Francona, who sold Axford with his typical straightforward approach.
"He was very, very up front with me about the team, the organization, the city," Axford said. "It just sounded to me like a situation I want to be a part of."
Axford replaces two-time All-Star closer Chris Perez, who was released in October after Cleveland made its first playoff appearance since 2007. Axford agreed to the contract with Cleveland earlier this week, and completed the deal after taking a physical on Wednesday. The right-hander can earn another $1.75 million in performance bonuses based on games finished: $250,000 for 38 and $300,000 apiece for 43, 48, 53, 58 and 63.
The Indians initially considered filling the closer's role within the organization — right-handers Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen were the top candidates — and pursued several veteran free agents before working out a deal with Axford. The Indians weren't scared off despite Axford struggles last season, when he started horribly and was demoted by the Brewers before eventually being traded to St. Louis in August.
"We thought he was the right guy to take a chance on," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said. "We feel like we added an experienced, power arm to the back of our bullpen."
Antonetti said the team wasn't reluctant to give the job to Shaw or Allen, it's just that Axford was a better option and the club feels he can "bounce back" and be an elite stopper again.
Axford attributed some of his early problems last season to pitching in the World Baseball Classic. He was throwing hard from the get-go and went through a "dead arm" period when his velocity dropped following the WBC. But after making some adjustments, Axford settled in and posted a 2.92 ERA in his final 71 appearances with the Brewers and Cardinals.
"I don't like to make excuses," Axford said. "I really enjoyed pitching for my country, but I really don't think my arm was ever ready for the start of the regular season. I had a dead arm and my velocity was down in those first few games of the regular season. But when you give up four home runs and have an ERA of 22 after four games, you can't be surprised that you're not the closer anymore."
Axford has a 22-19 career record with a 3.29 ERA and 106 saves in 281 relief appearances. He said being a free agent "was fun, but it was difficult." Ultimately, he thought the Indians were the best fit for him because they provided a chance to close again and Cleveland is just a 4 1-2 hour drive from his home in Ontario.
It also helped the Indians are on the rise after earning a wild-card spot in 2013.
"There were certainly other teams in the mix," Axford said. "They had a great season last year. It seemed like a team I would want to pitch for."