Hoffman's decision: Is it closing time?

It was just a moment, a brief snippet in time when Heath Bell felt as if his potential predecessor was acknowledging a future. Whenever that future was to be, for the first time, there was a feeling that an era in San Diego may be a bit closer to ending.

After one of Bell's bullpen sessions, 40-year-old icon Trevor Hoffman delivered his subtle, yet sound, advice.

"Hey, if you keep throwing too many pitches," Hoffman told his set-up man, "and you want to close for a long time, make sure you don't use all your bullets."

Bell took the advice, stored it and cherished it. There aren't many people in this world lucky enough to share a bullpen with the all-time leader in saves. And those who do usually leave with more wisdom and a better respect for the game, and for the man who has captained San Diego's 'pen for close to 16 seasons. Above all, they leave better people for having known Hoffman.

Then the words echoed in Bell's head.

And you want to close for a long time.

That could only mean one thing, since Bell is 30 and has four more years until free agency: Hoffman knows Bell wants to close. But who for? And will it be next season, with Hoffman in the final year of his three-year, $19 million deal? Could the Padres' icon and ambassador possibly play in another city?

"I don't see him going anywhere else," said San Diego general manager Kevin Towers. "This will be the last uniform he wears. If he still wants to play and he's as successful as he's been in the past, I don't anticipate it being difficult" to re-sign him.

These questions are only here because of Hoffman's early struggles. He's 0-2 with an 8.22 ERA. He has two blown saves and two losses so far this season, including a blown save on Wednesday night that spoiled Greg Maddux's bid for career win 350. Immediately, the inquiries have begun about last year: Did the two late-season blown saves, including the devastating loss to the Rockies in a one-game playoff, affect him? After Wednesday's game, Hoffman's teammates and manager Bud Black staunchly defended him.

To be fair, Hoffman had a 1.13 ERA in September with six saves, and before those final two games, he had successfully closed 10 straight games. Although Hoffman would never use it as an excuse, he had arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow after the season. His teammates, his brother and his general manager all say he's still having fun, a key for Hoffman.

And it's clear he still is. After Maddux gave up nine runs in his quest for win No. 350 last weekend, Brian Giles snapped the losing silence by playing Daniel Powter's "Bad Day" on the clubhouse speakers. Hoffman, always the serious pro, could not contain his amusement, burying his head in his hands while trying not to laugh.

"He's still getting people out," Bell said. "He had a rough start, but who doesn't have a rough start? In two months nobody's going to even remember those two games. His stuff looks good, it looks a little better than last year."

Last year is history, even earlier this season is history, and players will tell you if they are asked to keep harping on their struggles, moving on becomes an impossibility. Moving on is a closer's lifeline. No short memory means no lifeline. Trevor Hoffman thrives off his lifeline. And so it is that a few weeks into the season, the Padres are struggling with a sub-.500 record, and suddenly Hoffman's place in San Diego seems fragile. It's the most awkward of situations for everyone, even if the outcome is months away.

"I think he really wants to see where he's at the end of this year," Towers said. "Does he still have the drive, the desire? Does he still feel he's got the wherewithal, to grind it out another 162 games as a closer?"

Knowing Trevor as long as I've known him, if he feels he doesn't have the ability to get the job done on a nightly basis, he'll walk away.

--Padres GM Kevin Towers

Hoffman, averse to anything that puts an emphasis on him, and not the team, resisted being interviewed for this story. He acquiesced at the last moment and said it was inappropriate for him to discuss anything about himself when the team is struggling, and it's only April.

"It's not the time to be concerned with what your contract looks like," Hoffman said. "I think based off the season we have might dictate more than what I want to do and the direction the club wants to go in. I'd like to finish my career as a Padre. Again, talking about this stuff is taking away from what the focus should be on."

When asked if he's pondered retirement, Hoffman paused.

"It kind of creeps into your mind," he said.

It's hard to imagine the bullpen, the team, the city without Trevor Hoffman. Like Dave Winfield and Tony Gwynn, Hoffman holds an iconic status. He's been here before, of course. It was just three years ago that Hoffman agonized over the decision of whether to leave his adopted hometown for Cleveland, or stay in spite of ownership's offering a less-than-stellar deal to keep him.

"He made his decision with his heart," said Glenn Hoffman, his older brother and the Padres' third base coach.

And he will again, unless it's made for him. In a quiet moment at a charity event this past winter, Towers asked Hoffman what his thoughts were, what did he still want to do? Did he want to keep on keeping on?

Hoffman said he wasn't sure. He knew he was 76 saves away from 600, an enticing number. But he wanted to see how the season went, how he felt. He also wanted to consult his wife, Tracy, and his three sons. He also emphasized that he didn't want the job unless it was based on merit, not on service time.

"When it's time, he'll know it's time," Towers said. "He's got too much pride. People keep saying 'When that day comes, is it going to be a tough decision?' I don't think it'll ever come to that. Knowing Trevor as long as I've known him, if he feels he doesn't have the ability to get the job done on a nightly basis, he'll walk away. He's got way too much pride. He's not someone who's just going to hang on to hang on.

"He knows himself better than anybody."

What Towers knows is that Hoffman's replacement likely will come internally. Towers said he isn't interested in scouring the free-agent market for a closer. He'd rather have someone who's shared a bullpen with Hoffman, who's watched and studied the man who's done it the best for 15 years.

"I'd probably have a hard time going outside the organization replacing Trevor Hoffman," Towers said. "I'd like to think it'd be somebody we've already got."

Bell seems the obvious choice. He throws in the mid-90s but also has a slider along with what pitching coach Darren Balsley calls "a really good changeup, though he doesn't use it much." Bell doesn't have to, since he's primarily a one-inning guy.

Spend a few minutes with Bell and it's no secret he wants to close someday. He idolized Rod Beck, the late closer who once filled in for an injured Hoffman in San Diego. Hoffman and Beck were very close friends, so it must seem a bit strange when Hoffman sees Bell's right arm swaying and sashaying a la Shooter's. Bell even paraphrases an old Beck line: "You can pull muscle, you can't pull fat," and has already thought of what closer music he might choose.

He also considers himself old-school and has the utmost respect for Hoffman.

"It's an honor to be his set-up guy," Bell said. "If I do replace him, I would really like for him to go out when he wants to go out -- for him to hand over the closer's job. And that's basically on his terms; he decides to retire and hand it over.

"That's Trevor's bullpen, until he decides to give it up. Hopefully the organization doesn't want to take it from him."

San Diego has 140 games to figure that out.

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached via e-mail at amy.k.nelson@espn3.com.