Major League Baseball's all-time saves leader is leaving America's Finest City for beer and brats. Closer Trevor Hoffman (San Diego Padres) inked a one-year deal with the Milwaukee Brewers, giving himself the chance to spend the next (last?) step of his career in his desired role.
The Padres were reluctant to keep the organizational institution, and their worries were justified during his first-half struggles in 2008. His declining performance and the presence of (slightly) younger, cheaper right-hander Heath Bell (plus Bell's offseason ultimatum of "me or Hoffman") prompted an ugly divorce.
The Brewers bullpen horrified the baseball world last season, suffering through Canadian dream-crusher Eric Gagne and eventually settling on veteran righty Salomon Torres as a stopper. Torres retired this offseason, leaving Milwaukee with a gaping hole. Does Hoffman have enough gas left to provide stability - and serve as a reliable fantasy baseball option?
Hoffman (554 career closures) was automatic for most of his career, but the mechanism started to lose some gears in 2007 and 2008. He had blown a career-high seven saves that year, including two gaffes with a playoff berth on the line (including the infamous 2007 NL Wild Card playoff meltdown). Claiming his velocity was being affected, he had surgery to remove bone chips and spurs from his elbow.
The procedure didn't help right away. His location suffered early in the year as his fastball led to frequent walks. His 3.77 ERA last year was the first time his ERA finished above 3.00 since 2002. On a positive note, he ended up with just 1.79 walks per nine innings - mainly because he was smacked around more often with opposing bats.
Not even pitching Shangri-La PETCO Park could contain the former Padre's struggles; last year he yielded seven of his eight home runs there after he let opponents club just five in his home park over the previous four seasons.
In fact, he allowed 1.59 dingers per nine frames, his worst mark since 1995, and an absurd 13.8 percent of his rainbows allowed left the yard - his highest percentage since 2003.
On the bright side
Still, Hoffman's 2009 stock may have benefited from the Padres' deplorable 2008 season. The team didn't utilize him as much down the stretch because - well, they didn't have anything to play for.
He took the mound just eight times in August and five times in September. The Pads explored other pitchers, and Hoffman's arm was kept quiet. His 1.59 second-half ERA calmed the 5.08 storm that preceded it.
The average velocity on Hoffman's fastball was actually the highest in the last four years (86 mph) - not bone-shattering, but for him an improvement nonetheless. He also posted his highest average of strikeouts per nine innings (9.13) since 2003.
The loss of movement on that heater has been his problem. His trademark changeup still carries his arsenal, but how much longer can he lean on it?
An old dog must be taught new tricks in new digs. Miller Park is more amicable to hitters, and Hoffman has allowed high flyball rates for most of his career.
PETCO Park worked toward this strength (other than last year); Miller's genuine flyball draft may make his skills skunky. He will have to rely on his 1.59 ERA in 11 career appearances there to make the transition easier.
Who might hassle the Hoff?
Hoffman's setup crew, including several remnants from last year's gore show, doesn't present an imminent threat to steal the job, but they must be watched in the event Hoffman shows his age:
- Pitchers Carlos Villanueva and Seth McClung have worked as swingmen for Milwaukee in the last few seasons, but both were also considered internal options for the ninth-inning vacancy before Hoffman's arrival. Villanueva is the likely eighth-inning worker with McClung still fighting for a spot in the rotation.
- Robust righty Jorge Julio saved 83 games for the Baltimore Orioles from 2002 to 2004 and 15 outings for the Atlanta Braves in 2006. His career 8.71 K's per nine frames fits the job description, and he tossed 11 straight shutout performances to end 2008 with the Bravos.
- Righty David Riske had surgery to remove a bone spur from his throwing elbow in September. He was 2-for-7 in save situations last year, and though he has dabbled in locking games down, he is by no means reliable in the role.
- Want a center-of-the-Earth sleeper? Take a look at right-hander Eduardo Morlan, a Rule 5 pick plucked from the Tampa Bay Rays. The most upside-friendly of this group, the righty boasts 10.7 whiffs per nine in 321 2/3 career farm innings along with a pleasant 2.94 ERA. He hasn't faced Triple-A hitters yet, though, so he'd probably be kept from the majors until midseason, at the earliest.
Former Brewers manager Ned Yost displayed some questionable bullpen management; though the Brewers ranked fourth in the majors with 71 save opportunities, they ranked in the middle of the pack with a 63 percent conversion rate.
Sure, they have few impact arms, but new skipper Ken Macha may focus on keeping Hoffman healthy. While this could lead to the Hoff staying fresh, it may also lead to some of the aforementioned setup arms swiping saves from him.
Fantasy baseball outlook
Hoffman's arm may not be taxed since he still can barely top 90 mph on the gun, and his strong finish is encouraging. His competition in "The Good Land" is limited, so a slipup(s) probably won't tighten his leash that much early on.
Fantasy players must remember that his light workload helped ease his second-half strain last year, but it's once again hard to recommend the aging (aged is more appropriate) Hoffman as anything more than a No. 3 closer. If his first-half gaffes resurface, you may want to throw him on your bench for awhile to wait it out.
Remember, you must have two stable closers before considering picking Hoffman - or be aware you aren't grabbing a sure thing if he's your last hope.
Put each of the alternatives on your watch list as you probably won't need to draft any of them except in deep NL-only leagues.
About Tim Heaney
Tim's work has been featured by USA Today/Sports Weekly, among numerous outlets, and recognized as a finalist in the Fantasy Sports Writers Association awards. The Boston University alum competes in Tout Wars and LABR and has won several industry leagues in both baseball and football.
During baseball and football season, hear him every Wednesday on 1570 AM WNST in Baltimore. On Thursdays, he visits 106.1 FM WMTI in New Orleans and Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio, where he often crashes other shows, as well.
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