The competition for bullpen jobs officially begins next week when pitchers report to Spring Training, but for many of the reporting relievers the new season also represents a chance for redemption.
Disappointing or injury-curtailed 2006 seasons have left a number of relievers primed for bounce-back years in 2007, including Milwaukee's Derrick Turnbow, Oakland's Huston Street, Chicago Cubs right-hander Ryan Dempster, Texas' Eric Gagne, Kansas City's Octavio Dotel and Houston's Brad Lidge.
They are not alone. With few exceptions, most teams will open camp next week with multiple questions about their bullpens, and just six weeks to find answers.
Many eyes will be focused on Turnbow when camp opens next week. He came out of nowhere in 2005 to snatch the closer's job from Mike Adams, signed a three-year contract extension the day before 2006 Opening Day and opened last season by converting 12 consecutive saves. Turnbow's peers voted him to the National League All-Star team.
But somewhere along the line, things unraveled. Turnbow ran up a 13.06 ERA over his final 27 outings, a dismal stretch that included only one save, four blown saves and six losses. Manager Ned Yost turned briefly to former All-Star closer Dan Kolb and later handed the job to Francisco Cordero.
"The thing people forget about relievers is they don't get to work on things as much during the season because there is a chance they'll have to pitch that night," Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin said. "It's not like a starter, who can work between starts. With relievers, you don't want to risk overdoing it."
Turnbow will try to start over with pitching coach Mike Maddux and bullpen coach Bill Castro after pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training Feb. 17.
"He is more than ready," teammate Matt Wise said of Turnbow. "He wants to show people who the real Derrick Turnbow is, and the real Derrick Turnbow is the All-Star, not the guy who struggled in the second half [last season]."
Street saved 37 games for the A's during the 2006 regular season, tying for fourth-most in the American League, and posted a 3.31 ERA over 69 appearances. But he also blew 11 saves in 2006, leaving him with the second-worst save percentage in the AL, and his last pitch of the year was hit over the wall at Comerica Park by Detroit's Magglio Ordonez to wrap up the Tigers' AL Championship Series sweep.
"I think he's going to have a big year," A's manager Bob Geren said. "I didn't think he had a bad year last year, but there were some things that held him back a little."
Things like the strained pectoral muscle that forced him to miss 12 games from April 19 to May 1 and a strained groin that put him on the disabled list for the first time in his career, Aug. 19 through Sept. 8. Street blew three saves in his final 12 appearances of the regular season.
"I'm never going to make excuses for not doing my job," Street said. "If I take the ball, what happens from there is my responsibility. But when you're hurt in one place, sometimes your body makes adjustments that can affect your mechanics, whether you're aware of it or not, and that might lead to something else getting hurt. It kind of snowballs on you, and I think that happened to me a little bit."
Dempster took out his frustrations over 2006 in the gym and dropped more than 20 pounds this winter. He will report to the Cubs' camp in Mesa, Ariz., fit, fresh, and eager to forget the 2006 season. The right-hander led the National League in save percentage in his first year as a closer in 2005, but finished 14th in 2006. He was tied for second for the most blown saves (nine), and had the fewest 1-2-3 innings among Major League closers, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
"I've talked to him a little this winter, and when you talk to him you can tell he knows what he needs to do," Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. "[Last season] was a snowball at the top of the hill and he couldn't stop it."
This spring will likely be a little different for the right-hander. Dempster didn't get as many innings in the Cactus League in 2006 as he did in 2005 when he was part of the Cubs rotation. Rothschild plans on getting the closer into more games, although not necessarily more save situations.
Gagne is no longer a Los Angeles Dodger, and the question is: Who will replace the former All-Star closer?
The job currently belongs to Takashi Saito, who at age 37 appears to have the pitches and poise to keep it. Saito was a remarkable rookie in 2006. After a dozen years in Japan handling every pitching role, he didn't even make the Major League team out of Spring Training, yet it's unlikely the Dodgers would have made the playoffs without him. He took over for Danys Baez in May and successfully converted 24 of 26 save opportunities, breaking Yhency Brazoban's franchise single-season rookie saves record.
Because of Saito's reliability, the Dodgers were able to focus on other areas of the roster once they were assured the right-hander would return. And while Saito has some age and mileage on his arm, the Dodgers feel confident they have a closer-in-training in setup man Jonathan Broxton.
While the back end of the Houston bullpen isn't likely to undergo any major changes, the roles of the relievers could evolve over the course of the season. Chad Qualls and Dan Wheeler may be asked to contribute two-inning outings from time to time, and if Lidge struggles, Wheeler, who logged nine saves in 12 opportunities, would again step into the closer's role.
GM Tim Purpura is comforted by the stability this trio provides as it returns for its third season as a unit.
2006 MLB bullpen totals
"They know their roles," Purpura said. "They're good at it, but they're versatile, too. Qualls and Wheeler can both go a couple of innings, too. If you look for a bright spot out of last year with Lidge struggling, it was that 'Wheels' got a chance to close. To me, that just adds to your depth. Let's say Brad's gone two or three days in a row and he needs a day off. You have confidence that Wheeler can come in as a closer."
Jason Isringhausen is the Cardinals' career saves leader. He enters the season as a question mark after missing all of the postseason with a hip injury, and until he takes the mound, it's an open question as to how he's recovered.
If not, the Cardinals at least have a number of fallback options.
"I think it's safe to say that most clubs, if they feel they have extra pitching, quality pitching, going into Spring Training -- whether it's starters or relievers -- they feel like they're in good position," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said.
Gagne has moved on to Texas, where he will attempt to re-establish himself as a premier closer behind setup man Akinori Otsuka.
"We have a combination of quality and depth," GM Jon Daniels said. "We have experience at the back end and youth and power arms coming up in front of them. Going into Spring Training, we have more guys who deserve to be on the team than we do spots, so we've got some tough calls to make. But if Eric and [Frank] Francisco are as healthy as we think they're going to be, then we have a chance to have a bullpen that is a competitive advantage."
Gagne has been working out all winter in Arizona and said he is ahead of schedule. He is expected to be at full strength when Spring Training opens, but the Rangers will obviously take it slow with him.
"My expectation for Eric is just a healthy season," Daniels said. "He's putting the work in and if he's healthy, there's no reason why he can't be a force in the bullpen."
The Royals are hoping Dotel and the rest of a revamped bullpen that also includes newcomers David Riske and Chris Ray will be much improved in 2007.
"We do feel our bullpen is much better," GM Dayton Moore said. "Again, it's all paper moves. They've still got to go out there. And the success of every bullpen depends on two things. First, your starting pitching has to be consistent. That allows the second to fall in place -- your bullpen blending together and settling into specific roles."
Moore believes his restructured bullpen has some good talent. Not that there aren't some question marks. Dotel, for example, is a big one.
"It depends how healthy he is," pitching coach Bob McClure said. "Then it's being in games. We'd like to get him in 10 to 12 games in Spring Training."
There's been some apprehension that because of Dotel's elbow surgery in 2005 he might not be ready for full-time closing duty for a couple of months. He pitched just 10 innings last year for the Yankees.
"I'm hoping it doesn't take more than a month, just Spring Training," McClure said. "But you've got to have a Plan B and a Plan C."
Jim Molony is a writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.