If not Hoffman in Milwaukee, then who?
After 18 seasons and a major league-record 594 saves, Trevor Hoffman's career -- or at least the All-Star-caliber phase of it -- looks like it might be nearing its end.
According to the Milwaukee Brewers' official website, Hoffman won't get the chance to make it three blown saves in a row, as he's due the day off Thursday. Or, at least, manager Ken Macha says he's probably due a day off.
"[On Thursday], if we have a chance to win it, perhaps it will be somebody else at the end of the game," said Macha.
But who might that "somebody else" be, and while Hoffman's accolades quite understandably have his manager as patient through his struggles as with any closer in the game, isn't it time for the Brewers to seriously consider a change? Even Macha couldn't determine the latter: "I don't know the answer to that."
TOP 75 RELIEF PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 75 relief pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics already accrued.
One problem is that the Brewers boast a bevy of fill-in candidates, at least short-term ones. Let's do a roll call among Brewers relievers:
• LaTroy Hawkins: He's the most obvious choice; the Brewers signed him to a two-year, $7.5 million contract to inherit the eighth inning this past winter, and in eight of his 10 appearances thus far that's exactly the inning in which he has pitched. However, Hawkins' ERA is 7.71 thanks to back-to-back miserable outings on April 14 and 16, his career ERA as a reliever is 3.35 and his WHIP 1.27, which are hardly elite, and, if you believe in such a thing, his "closer experience" has been poor because he has 18 blown saves in the two seasons in his career in which he was a full-time closer (2001 and 2004). NL-only owners at least should handcuff Hawkins to Hoffman based upon his having the highest probability of this bunch, not that it necessarily means he's the right choice.
• Todd Coffey: He was Hoffman's primary setup man last season, and an effective one at that; his ERA was 2.90, his WHIP 1.16 and he had 28 holds. Still, Hawkins' arrival has pushed Coffey back to mostly a seventh-inning role, and Coffey's brief experience as a closer with the Cincinnati Reds in 2006 was hardly gripping. Coffey is really no less deserving of a chance than Hawkins, but he also seems much less likely to get a chance of the two.
• Carlos Villanueva: If there's any Brewers reliever who thus far has earned the opportunity to close, it's Villanueva, who has tossed 12 shutout innings, struck out 15 and limited opponents to a .125 batting average. That said, he pitched the sixth inning Wednesday behind Coffey, Hawkins and Hoffman, which hints he might be only fourth in the pecking order. Villanueva has closed before, stepping in for an injured Hoffman early last year, but his 2-for-5 performance in save chances in April 2009 might also work against him. NL-only owners should already have been using Villanueva for ERA, WHIP and strikeout help, and the prospect of cheap saves makes him mixed-worthy, at least in deeper ones. But just because he has earned a chance to close doesn't mean he'll get one.
• Manny Parra: The switch to relief apparently has done him well, as he has a 0.77 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 12 K's in nine appearances so far, not to mention has held right-handed hitters to .160/.222/.200 (AVG/OBP/SLG) rates. However, Parra didn't even appear until the 12th inning Wednesday, wound up losing the game and has been used almost exclusively as a long man/mop-up reliever. If he gets any sneaky saves, at best they'd be situational.
• Chris Smith: The closer for the Brewers' Triple-A affiliate in Nashville, Smith has eight saves, a 1.12 ERA and 0.88 WHIP in nine appearances, following up a strong 2009 there that earned him a 35-game stint with the big club. That Smith, now 29 years old, had a 4.11 ERA and 1.30 WHIP for the Brewers last season makes him a long shot to inherit the role this year, but a promotion earning him the opportunity to compete for it wouldn't be unthinkable. Keep an eye on him.
The upshot to all this, of course, is that Hoffman might require only a few mechanical adjustments before returning to his normal self in a couple weeks. It wouldn't be the first time he has endured a terrible month; he was 5-for-7 in save chances with a 6.52 ERA and 1.55 WHIP as recently as April 2008, and 8-for-11 in save chances with 5.54/2.00 ratios in August 2007. That's just the life of an extreme fly-baller -- Hoffman has allowed them on 46.4 percent of his balls in play since 2002, according to FanGraphs -- as even the slightest change in sharpness can lead to disastrous results. Concern is justified; panic probably isn't.
After all, Hoffman's track record probably guarantees him one of the longest leashes in baseball. Handcuff him to Hawkins and/or Villanueva for now, but don't be at all surprised if Hoffman gets the vast majority of Brewers saves from today forward.
On shaky ground
Quite a few other bullpens are in turmoil right now, so here's a quick-hitting look at each of the closer jobs potentially up for grabs:
Texas Rangers: Though manager Ron Washington claims Neftali Feliz is still his closer, according to ESPNDallas.com, it's hard to ignore that Feliz has allowed multiple runs in three of his past four outings, including the only time this season he had pitched on back-to-back days, which might make Washington hesitant to try the strategy again. Frank Francisco, the team's Opening Day closer, polished off Tuesday's game for his first save, and has a 1.29 ERA and .130 batting average allowed in his past seven appearances. This might be a co-closer situation, the only such one in the majors right now, and Francisco at this point could be the stronger candidate to lead the team in saves due to Feliz's workload restrictions. If Francisco was let go in your league, scoop him up quickly.
Arizona Diamondbacks: How many people noticed that, on Wednesday, it was Juan Gutierrez who got the save opportunity in the 10th inning? The right-hander converted a perfect inning for the save, his first of the year, and afterward manager A.J. Hinch told the Arizona Republic that he didn't want to use traditional closer Chad Qualls because the latter had thrown 53 pitches combined the previous three days. That's not enough to hint a change is imminent in the Arizona bullpen, especially not since Gutierrez's ERA is 5.40, but even back-to-back strong outings might be all it takes for this job to change hands. If you're a Qualls owner, the safest move is to grab Gutierrez in the event of a change, not that either reliever looks like a top-15 fantasy option right now.
Philadelphia Phillies: Brad Lidge is expected to return from the DL on Friday, according to the team's official website, but will he recapture the closer's role immediately? Considering how Ryan Madson has pitched, the chances are good; Madson has blown two of his past three opportunities and has a 7.00 ERA and 1.78 WHIP in nine appearances this season. As with the aforementioned Jim Johnson, Madson's numbers in a setup role have been inexplicably better than when he has closed, not that Lidge's statistics as closer -- at least not in 2009 -- stand out. If you're a Madson owner, at best you might have only one more week of saves coming from him, and that's only if he doesn't blow such future chances.
Middle reliever spotlight: Tyler Clippard, Washington Nationals
Wednesday was "obscure trivia" day in the office, and Clippard was the subject of the question: Counting Player Rater points in only the ERA, WHIP and strikeouts categories, which relief pitcher ranks highest?
This Nationals right-hander, who was a New York Yankees starting pitching prospect as recently as 2007, is the answer, and if you combine his 2009-10 numbers in his new role, they're eye-popping. In 52 appearances for the Nationals during that span, he has seven wins, a 2.22 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 87 K's in 77 innings, numbers that rival those of all but a few relief pitchers.
As The Washington Post points out, Clippard's "herky-jerky motion" provides him a bit of deception, and his ability to change speeds has presented problems for opposing hitters. Among pitchers with 10 or more innings, his 33.6 percent swing-and-miss rate is fifth-best in the majors. That has helped Clippard elevate himself to the primary setup role to Matt Capps, while making him a viable ERA/WHIP helper in NL-only and deep mixed formats. In fact, in the event Capps gets hurt, it might not be top prospect Drew Storen who takes over as the Nationals' closer; it might be Clippard. Keep that in mind, handcuff-seekers.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.
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