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For whom Hells Bells toll

Is it time to remove Hoffman from closer role?

Posted: Tuesday April 8, 2008 12:47PM; Updated: Wednesday April 9, 2008 2:55PM
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Trevor Hoffman
All-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman is 0-2 with a 12.27 ERA and a blown save thus far.

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At some point, perhaps in the fairly near future, the Padres will have to consider whether to remove all-time saves leader and all-around good guy Trevor Hoffman from his closer job.

Hoffman, a certain Hall of Famer with 526 saves and counting, has shown small hints of slippage the first week after two memorable defeats at the end of last season. And slippage at 40 is always inspected more closely than pre-40 slippage.

Hoffman has one blown save and two losses so far (the blown save came in one of the losses), and his ERA stands at 12.27. But what's compounded the shaky start is that it comes on top of his brutal ending to the 2007 season, when he blew two games and enabled the Rockies to slip past the Padres into the playoffs.

Padres GM Kevin Towers, reached by phone Monday night, insisted Hoffman's time isn't near being up. "It hasn't even crossed my mind what Plan B is,'' Towers said. "At the end of every year he ends up with 40-plus saves. He's Mr. Consistency. I haven't seen any dropoff. He actually has a lot better velocity ... I think he's going to be fine.''

Towers isn't shocked the whispers have started, though. "I think there's some residual effect after what happened last year,'' Towers said. "But his stuff is still good. [All] you have to do is look at what he's done historically. He's in great shape. He's in a great frame of mind. I think he's just tired of being the focus.''

Hoffman, who finished with 42 saves last year (which is exactly his average since 1996, not counting '03 when he was hurt) along with a 4-5 record and 2.98 ERA, has done more with an 85 mph fastball and great changeup than almost anyone in baseball history. It's true he can't be judged on a few games, nor certainly on his spring-training performances. (One scout told me the cagey Hoffman often spends springs throwing batting-practice fastballs to hitters he expects to face in the regular season with the belief it's better not to show his best stuff.)

He can't be judged on April alone, either. Historically, that is far from his best month (his 56 saves in April are the fewest of any month).

Yet if this continues, the judging may start soon.

And eventually, the question will have to be asked: Is he better than the alternative?

It won't be easy to replace a legend, but one plus is the Padres have an obvious alternative in setup man Heath Bell, one of the Padres' many astute pitching pickups in recent years. Bell, who was 6-4 with a 2.02 ERA and 102 strikeouts in 93 2/3 innings last year, is only 30 and provides a great contrast to Hoffman in that he throws 97 mph. Bell has started the season with four scoreless innings.

When Hoffman does finally become an issue to Padres higher ups, they surely aren't going to publicly weigh the merits of a switch. But few teams know pitching better than the Pads; so if anyone knows when it's time, they'll know.

In any case, Towers said he isn't worried about having to tell Hoffman when it's time. "I think when it does happen, Trevor will know. He's got too much pride,'' Towers said. "He'll know probably before we know. He's not going to hang on just to hang on. He cares too much for his teammates to do that.''

It's true that it may be too early to seriously contemplate a move involving Hoffman after just two saves and only 3 2/3 innings (and five hits and two walks).

But the question may come before too long as to whether the man with 500-plus career saves will himself need saving.

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