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TREVOR HOFFMAN picked up his 527th save on April 11, extending his own career record, but he was sufficiently shaky in a 7--5 Padres victory over the Dodgers that one was left with an inescapable thought: The superb closer's career may itself soon be coming to a close. "I just hope he's able to end it gracefully," says an American League scout. "I've been fooled before. Maybe he'll come back and save 30 games, but I think something's going to have to change."
Hoffman ranks with the Yankees' Mariano Rivera and the Mets' Billy Wagner in that rare group of closers who have thrived for more than a decade. With the exception of the 2003 season, when he missed all but four weeks with a torn rotator cuff, Hoffman has saved at least 37 games every year since 1996; only once during that span was his ERA above 3.00. This season, however, has been different. His four saves in five chances belie a 9.53 ERA, the result of sudden command issues. "Every other pitch is right down the middle," says the scout. "He now has well-below-average stuff."
Hoffman's Padres are not the only would-be contender with serious closer issues. The Indians ( Joe Borowski), the Brewers ( Eric Gagn�) and the Diamondbacks ( Brandon Lyon) have all had disturbing blowups. Gagn�, who's already surrendered two ninth-inning, game-tying home runs, is still hitting 94 mph, right around where he was topping out last season as an effective closer for Texas. However, his breaking ball, a scout says, has had little snap.
Borowski, who once threw in the mid-90s, has won admirers for having saved 81 games over the last two years despite now throwing in the mid-80s. "Fearless," is the word that Indians general manager Mark Shapiro uses to describe the 36-year-old righthander. Nonetheless, Borowski gave up a walk-off grand slam to the Angels' Torii Hunter last week.
Lyon, who assumed the closer's role after Arizona traded Jose Valverde to Houston in December, is a sinkerballer who, according to a scout, "does not have closer's stuff." Though Lyon blew two of his first four save chances, Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin expressed little inclination to make a switch, despite plenty of able replacements; Tony Pena, Chad Qualls and Juan Cruz did not give up a run in the Diamondbacks' first 11 games.
Bullpens have been more unpredictable than usual from the start in 2008. A record eight save chances were squandered on Opening Day, and through Sunday, 42 more have been blown since, a 35% increase over the first two weeks of 2007. "In general, unless you have Rivera or one of the few guys close to that stature, it's such a volatile role," says Arizona G.M. Josh Byrnes, who belongs to a growing group of G.M.'s who believe that unless you have a dominant ninth-inning option, closers are interchangeable.
Shapiro acknowledges what a crapshoot it is putting together a bullpen, noting that he's put together two good ones and two that were failures. "You won't find a G.M. out there who's great year to year," he says.
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