Closing Time: Trevor Hoffman's nightmare continues

Trevor Hoffman(notes) has a sterling reputation, a winning smile and 594 career saves. But these days he's just another scuffling closer looking for answers.

The 42-year-old Hoffman has been a mess to open the year, collecting three blown saves in his last six appearances. The latest collapse came Tuesday against the Pirates and there was nothing cheap about it – Ronny Cedeno(notes) tied the game with this frozen rope out of the park, and Ryan Doumit(notes) sealed the deal with this moonshot to right field. Hoffman has already allowed five homers in just eight innings; he's not getting beaten on bloops and bleeders, it's been no-doubters. He's been getting behind in the count regularly, which presents two problems: he has to throw his 80s fastball more than he wants to, and it prevents him from going to his money pitch, an out-of-the-zone change-up while ahead in the count.

But when you've got the resume of Hoffman, ninth-inning changes don't happen overnight. "He's the all-time saves leader," Milwaukee manager Ken Macha said after Tuesday's loss, essentially offering Hoffman a vote of confidence. "I mean, I think he's got a pretty good feel for what he's doing out there."

Sounds like Hoffman will get a chance to right the ship, but it's important for us to look around the Milwaukee bullpen to find a possible successor, just in case. Get out the notebook and let's see what's what.

LaTroy Hawkins(notes) has been the bridge to Hoffman most of the year but he's been struggling as well, getting hit hard in three of his last five outings (eight hits, eight runs). Todd Coffey(notes) has been passable as a set-up man (3.72 ERA, 1.34 WHIP) and was a mediocre closer for the Reds in 2006, if that matters to you. And then there's Carlos Villanueva(notes), who's been far and away the most dominant man in this bullpen (11 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 4 BB, 14 K). If you have to own a non-Hoffman reliever on this team, I'd suggest betting on the skills and going with Villanueva.

If the Brewers eventually look towards Triple-A for some relief help, there are some options. Closer Chris Smith has already collected eight saves with Nashville (8 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 9 K), though he's also 29 and can't really be called a prospect. The real tantalizing arm belongs to left-handed set-up man Zach Braddock; he's been out of this world (9.2 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 17 K). But those are just names to tuck away for now; when Milwaukee has a lead to protect later this week, Hoffman figures to have the ball.

The Ubaldo Jimenez(notes) victory tour continued as he cruised through six scoreless innings against Arizona (2 H, 2 BB, 6 K). There's so much to like here: three plus pitches (including a mid-90s heater that moves); a heavy ground-ball rate; a consistent record of improvement since joining the majors; the humidor effect in Colorado (it's still a tricky place to pitch, but no longer a death sentence).

We'd like to see a few less walks going forward, but no one's beating Jimenez with the bats these days; the league is hitting just .186 against him, and no one has homered off him through 34.1 innings. This year's Zack Greinke(notes)? The comparison makes sense.

As for that Greinke fellow, he can't catch a break these days. He held the Mariners in check over seven strong innings Tuesday (0 R, 6 H, 5 K) but the Royals frittered away his lead in the eighth. Greinke's got a 2.56 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP through five starts - and zero wins.

It's too late to call Austin Kearns(notes) a post-hype sleeper; he's one for the amnesiacs in the crowd now. You might recall the Reds selecting him as a first-round pick in 1998, and you might remember Kearns being somewhat useful in the middle of the 2000s. But he was so lost at the plate the last two years that even the Nationals had no use for him, and when Kearns made the Indians out of spring training as a fourth outfielder, no one had a right to expect much.

Kearns has forced his way into our roto thoughts over the last four days, putting up three significant performances. His first act was a three-hit game on Saturday, along with a stolen base. Two days later he came through with another three hits, a homer, and another steal. And the roll continued on Tuesday as Kearns single-handedly defeated the Angels, collecting three more knocks, a homer, and five RBIs.

Okay, the world is filled with players who go on a nice run over a four-day period. There's no guarantee this story is going anywhere, and Kearns hasn't earned anything long-term from the Indians, though you have to figure they'll keep him in the lineup until this run plays out. But still, there's a pedigree here, and heck, Kearns is just 29. He's out there in 99 percent of Yahoo! leagues as I type this to you. If you've got a spot at the end of your roster, maybe this will be a fun story to follow along with.

Justin Verlander(notes) still has plenty of oomph in that right arm of his; he showed it during a solid effort Tuesday against Minnesota (5.2 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 3 BB, 7 K). But efficiency remains a problem with Verlander; he ran up 122 pitches relatively quickly, in part because the Twins are a patient lot and in part because batters keep fouling off scores of Verlander's offerings. It's hard to get your hand on wins when you don't work deep into the ballgame.

Verlander had no real shot at a win here anyway because Francisco Liriano(notes) was fantastic (8 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 10 K). Have a peek at the snappy video here. He's looking like one of the middle-to-late round picks that's going to decide leagues, that's how brilliant he's been in the first month of the year. Liriano hasn't been scored upon in his last 23 innings.

Baltimore manager Dave Trembley made it clear before Tuesday's game: "There's no closer for me right now. Who wants it? Somebody take it." And a few hours later it was the just-recalled Alfredo Simon(notes) making his claim, putting away the Yankees in the ninth for a save out of nowhere. Simon's outing was a mix of good things (two strikeouts), bad things (two baserunners) and odd things (an infield error cost him two unearned runs). But at the end of the game, the Orioles had something to celebrate - and their first winning streak of the year.

It's doubtful that the 28-year-old Simon, coming off elbow surgery, is any type of long-term solution as a Baltimore closer, especially when you consider some of the options the team will have when everyone is healthy. But any ninth-inning save in the majors leaves a footprint and it's our job to examine that footprint; in competitive save-chasing leagues, Simon is someone you need to be aware of. His promotion from Triple-A Norfolk was well-earned, as he posted a 1.59 ERA over 17 innings, with five walks against 14 strikeouts.

We've taken some shots at the Pirates in this space of late but we should give them some positive pub now that they've gotten the Miller Park jinx (22-game losing streak) out of the way. Jeff Clement(notes) is one Bucs batter you need to be aware of, given that he's carrying catcher eligibility in Yahoo! leagues but not tied to the position in real life. He's still striking out too much for our liking (14 whiffs, against just three walks) but he's also on a tidy 8-for-24 stretch over the last week with a couple of homers, including one Tuesday. It's been a messy year for backstops, as we said in Monday's Closing Time, so we need to consider any possible solution to the position. Clement was a hot prospect in Seattle before losing his way last year, and don't forget he was the third overall pick in the 2005 draft.

Neftali Feliz(notes) needed a day off Tuesday and that cleared the path for Frank Francisco(notes) to re-enter our save-chasing lives. Francisco set the White Sox down on a tidy 10 pitches, and even if he didn't look superbly confident on the field, he's clearly given Ron Washington something to think about. Francisco has allowed just one run over his last seven appearances, while Feliz had two hiccups in the Detroit series.

Everyone wants a piece of the Arlington offense but it's been a tricky year with the Texas catchers. Here's the latest: Jarrod Saltalamacchia(notes) and Taylor Teagarden(notes) have taken their time-sharing act to Triple-A, while the parent club will role with Matt Treanor(notes) starting and Max Ramirez(notes) backing up. Treanor homered Tuesday but it's hard to see any reason to pick him up, even in deeper groups. He's got a career .234/.318/.314 line over 770 at-bats.

Injury Blog: Brett Anderson(notes) has a strained tendon in his elbow and is expected to miss at least a month. … Nelson Cruz(notes) hit the 15-day DL with a balky hamstring. David Murphy(notes) will probably get extra time as a result, though Murphy didn't start against Mark Buehrle(notes) Tuesday. … Daric Barton(notes) is going to play through his fractured finger, apparently. He was back in the lineup Tuesday, taking the collar. … Justin Morneau(notes) left Tuesday's game midway through, dealing with a sore back. He looked lost at the plate against Verlander. … Juan Uribe(notes) (elbow) was able to pinch-hit Tuesday. … Kerry Wood(notes) had a bullpen session Tuesday and will do the same Friday; if he doesn't have any setbacks, we could see him in a Cleveland uniform in 10-14 days. But given Wood's history, there's no way I'd expect the short side of that timetable to become a reality.

Speed Round: Eric Young produced as Colorado's leadoff man (4-2-2-2, plus a walk), which might earn him an extended trial in the lineup. … Ian Desmond(notes) has three multi-hit games in his last four starts and he also stole two bases Tuesday. Just let him play, Jim Riggleman. … Jon Garland(notes) is generally a pitch-to-contact guy but he hit his spots perfectly in Florida, rolling up a stunning 10 strikeouts. … Ryan Franklin(notes) needed a night off Tuesday, which paved the way for Jason Motte(notes) to get a five-out save. … Ben Sheets(notes) was roughed up again Tuesday (eight runs), allowing homers to Pat Burrell(notes) and the intriguing Reid Brignac(notes).Livan Hernandez(notes) keeps rolling along (0.87 ERA), but it's hard to trust someone with just 10 strikeouts over 31 innings. … Rather than keep him rotting on the bench, the Rockies decided to send Chris Iannetta(notes) to Triple-A Tuesday. … Watching Ryan Raburn(notes) try to play the outfield is not pretty. Try something else, Detroit. … Curt Schilling(notes) had some interesting things to say about the struggling Javier Vazquez(notes) on ESPN Radio this week. … Stephen Strasburg(notes) worked five no-hit innings in his Double-A outing Tuesday. He's got nothing to prove, or to gain, at that level. The dynamic righty has a 0.52 ERA over 17.1 pro innings, with 23 strikeouts against three walks. … Brandon Wood(notes) has come alive against the Indians, collecting six hits and a homer over the last two days. Take that info and do whatever you like with it.


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