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Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2009

Hells Bells, This Looks Good

The Fairly Detached Observers

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If you love the Milwaukee Brewers and heavy metal classics, you should enjoy this year at Miller Park. Baseball’s all-time leader in saves, Trevor Hoffman, has agreed to become the Brewers’ closer in 2009. In today’s high-decibel ballparks, most home-team closers enter to a butt-kicking anthem, and in San Diego Hoffman adopted AC/DC’s “Hells Bells.” Brewer fans hope it plays often, with Hoffman ringing up enough saves to get the team to the playoffs for a second straight year. The Observers aren’t big on blaring music, but they understand the bigger picture.

Artie: Well, we escaped the McCarthy massacre, buddy. I thought ol’ Mike might fire everyone who even thought about the Packers’ defense.

Frank: One of the survivors was in “defensive quality control,” whatever that means.

Artie: If you have quality, why control it? Wouldn’t you want to just crank that knob as far as she’ll go? And speaking of quality, the Brewers sure seem to have made a good move in landing Trevor Hoffman.

Frank: Filling their biggest need with the all-time save leader is hard to argue with, even if the guy is 41. The cost is $6 million, with another $1.5 million in possible bonuses based on “games finished.” So a max of $7.5 million for what could be the key to another playoff run.

Artie: It seems like Hoffman still has it. He had 30 saves in 34 chances last year for a lousy San Diego team. And because he relies on a change-up, there’s less risk that his arm goes kaput out of the blue. He’s not a disabled-list kind of guy; otherwise how could he have that many saves?

Frank: He had shoulder surgery in 2003, but no problems since then. There’s no worry about a blazing fastball disappearing because Hoffman never had a blazer. Unlike, say, last year’s Brewer gamble on a closer, Eric Gagne.

Artie: A gamble that went bust, bigtime, and cost the Crew $10 million. When you add the $6 million Derrick Turnbow got over three years, that’s $16 million for closers that wasn’t so well spent.

Frank: They wouldn’t have tried Gagne if they’d kept Francisco Cordero after 2007. But keeping him would have cost $46 million over four years, what he wound up taking from Cincinnati.

Artie: Eventually the Brewers found a decent closer last year in Salomon Torres, but he went and retired for the oddball reason of being with his family. He didn’t get the memo that it’s all about the money.

Frank: Hoffman struggled in the first half last season and finished with one of his highest ERAs (3.77), but in the second half he was at 1.59.

Artie: And that’s the half you really want someone to be effective in.

Frank: Last year he converted 88% of his save chances, and for his career he’s at better than 89% (554 for 621), the highest percentage of anyone.

Artie: How did Hoffman’s numbers compare with Cordero’s last year?

Frank: Pretty favorably. “Coco” was 34 for 40 in save chances, or 85%, with an ERA of 3.33, and pitched 25 more innings than Hoffman (70 1/3 to 45 1/3). But Hoffman had a terrific strikeouts-to-walks ratio (46 to 9), and in the trendy statistic known as WHIP—walks and hits per inning—he was at 1.04 to Cordero’s 1.41.

Artie: I noticed Hoffman gave up more homers than usual.

Frank: Yeah, that’s a red flag. Eight homers in 45 innings, and surprisingly most of them happened at the spacious San Diego ballpark. Miller Park is clearly more favorable to hitters. But as a Padre, Hoffman’s ERA at our ballyard was 1.59 over 11 games.

Artie: Closers usually have rollercoaster careers, but Hoffman has pretty much avoided the pitfalls.

Frank: As we sit here, with snow flying and the season three months away, the Hoffman gambit looks a lot more solid than the Gagne gambit did a year ago.

Artie: Having Hoffman won’t be worth much, though, if the starters and setup men don’t produce a lot of chances to use him. I wonder, now that Hoffman is here, whether his San Diego pal, No. 1 starter Jake Peavy, might be lured here, too?

Frank: The money Peavy will want might be too much for the Brewers.

Artie: Even with the fabulous new revenue stream they just announced?

Frank: You refer, of course, to the sponsoring agreement with the Potawatomi Bingo Casino. The reports pegged that amount at less than the $2.6 million the Brewers get yearly from MillerCoors for the stadium naming rights. If that’s true, the Potawatomi money won’t buy a Peavy.

Artie: And maybe the agreement might be more in the form of dinner vouchers at the casino eateries, ain’a?

Frank: So now we’ll be seeing casino ads all over Miller Park. What a great message to send amid the worst economy since the Great Depression: “Hey fans, after you’ve spent triple digits to take the family to the ballpark, drop the kids off at home, head on down the valley and throw away more money.”

Artie: Hold on, Frank, what the fock! Casinos are our last, best hope. Where else can you make a million bucks in 30 seconds?

Rolling Sixes

Frank: Making millions in a few seconds. Sounds like the networks’ haul from Super Bowl commercials. Which reminds me: How about that carnage among the highly seeded teams in the NFL playoffs?

Artie: Wow, what’s the point of yelling, “We’re No. 1!” if all it gets you is a buttwhipping by No. 6? Adios, Giants and Titans, and throw in the No. 2 Panthers to boot.

Frank: Now Philly and Baltimore have a chance to become the third No. 6 in four years to win the Super Bowl. The Giants did it last year and Pittsburgh three years ago—winning three straight playoff games on the road and then the big one.

Artie: The Eagles were 9-6-1 in the regular season and the team they’re playing for the NFC title, Arizona, was 9-7. Has any team that didn’t have 10 wins before the playoffs won the Super Bowl?

Frank: Not in a full 16-game season. The 1967 Packers were 9-4-1 but won Super Bowl II, and the Redskins were 8-1 in the strike season of ‘82. Two teams that went 10-6 went all the way, the ‘88 49ers and the ‘07 Giants.

Artie: This tells me something: The teams that get hot late have the goods, not necessarily the teams with the best records. It’s always a crapshoot, but health is the big deal. The teams that can keep their top players on the field, or get them back at the right time, will get it done.

Frank: The Super Bowl champion often isn’t the best NFL team of the season, but the best in January. Witness the Giants a year ago, who beat an 18-0 New England team.

Artie: Now the Eagles look just like those Giants.

Frank: In late November they were 5-5-1 after getting crushed by Baltimore, in a game that saw Donovan McNabb get benched. But on Thanksgiving night they blasted the Cardinals, 48-20, en route to a 4-1 finish, and now they’ve crunched the Vikings and Giants.

Artie: But I think Arizona will beat Philly. That Cardinal offense: Larry Fitzgerald is one heck of a receiver, I kid you not!

Frank: How about the AFC title game, with the Steelers and Ravens squaring off for the third time this season? Pittsburgh won the previous two, but by three and four points. Beating anyone three times is tough.

Artie: I ain’t buying that. Besides, I like the Steelers because they’re old school.

Frank: You mean that one side of their helmets is blank?

Artie: You betcha. And I remember guys like Bobby Layne and Tom “The Bomb” Tracy.

Frank: So you’re calling an Arizona- Pittsburgh Super Bowl. Just for fun I’ll predict Philly-Baltimore. Let’s have both the No. 6 seeds get to the big show.

“Hamlet” Hits Broadway

Artie: Hey, speaking of nine-win teams, I’ve got a scoop about one that sat out the playoffs. Brett Favre says he’ll take several weeks before telling the Jets whether he’ll play next season. Can you believe it?

Frank: I’m sure that Capt. Renault in Casablanca and all the folks in Packerland are shocked—shocked!—to hear that.

Artie: Enjoy the show, New Yorkers.

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