Plenty of possibilities

Plenty of closer candidates

SARASOTA, Fla. -- How many closers does it take to lock down a save opportunity?

Before the Reds break camp next month, they could determine it will take more than one.

The Cincinnati bullpen is bustling with veterans, brimming with lefties and sprinkled with some promising younger arms.

Yet, it's missing an anointed closer -- for now.

"Outside of not having a closer, our pitching is as good as it's been here in a while," Reds manager Jerry Narron said.

Eddie Guardado was re-signed earlier this month but is coming off ligament replacement surgery in his left elbow. Guardado, who was 8-for-10 in save situations before he was shut down in August, is targeting a late June return.

"We're waiting on Eddie to get healthy and then go from there," said reliever David Weathers, who led the club with 12 saves in 2006. "But it's pretty much how we started the year last year."

What the bullpen lacks in a dedicated closer, it compensates with several pitchers that have experience closing.

Weathers, Todd Coffey, Bill Bray, Rheal Cormier, free-agent acquisition Mike Stanton and recent non-roster addition Kerry Ligtenberg are all considered in the mix by Narron this spring.

Of that group, Weathers, Stanton and Ligtenberg have extensive ninth-inning experience. However, Weathers has been stronger in a setup role, and outside of eight saves he recorded for the Giants filling in as a closer in 2006, Stanton has been primarily a setup man for the past several years.

Ligtenberg had 30 saves for the Braves in 1998 and was once a promising closer. Then he missed all of 1999 with an elbow injury and never fully returned to prominence. He spent all of last season at Triple-A Iowa for the Cubs.

Indications are that the right-handed Weathers and the left-handed Stanton would, depending on the situation, share the ninth inning if the season opened today. Of course, that can always change.

"Whatever they want me to do, that's how I pitch," said Weathers, who had a 3.54 ERA in 67 games last season. "I enjoy that role. It's a little more pressure. I kind of like that."

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"Would I like to be the closer? Sure," said Stanton, who had a career-high 27 saves in 1993 with the Braves. "The bottom line is I want to pitch. I come to camp and I go into the regular season with the idea that I'm coming into the ballpark pitching that day. That's always been my approach. That will always be my approach. I don't like to sit and watch games."

Among the younger pitchers, Coffey, 26, had eight saves last season. He excelled in a setup spot and led the Reds with 81 appearances. The right-hander already said over the winter he wanted another crack at the closing job.

At 23 years old, Bray is the youngest pitcher on the list of candidates. He had two saves for Cincinnati last season after coming over from Washington in a July trade.

"If the opportunity arose, I would definitely try to make the most of it," Bray said. "Right now, it's so far in the back of my mind. I'm just trying to prepare for the season and concentrate on breaking camp with the team."

Weathers emerged from an closer-by-committee system early last season before losing the job to Coffey, who struggled and lost the job when Guardado was acquired. Holding leads into the ninth inning often proved difficult for a Reds bullpen in constant flux, especially in the first half.

Cincinnati's bullpen ended up ranked 12th in the Natinonal League with 36 saves.

"If you are going to go with a bullpen-by-committee ... you need three or four guys in the bullpen that can close," Stanton said. "Do we have that? Yeah, we have experience down there. We'll have to see how it comes about. It might be that situation or somebody steps forward and takes the job.

"Back in Atlanta, when we had bullpen-by-committee for the most part, it can be successful. We went to the World Series a couple of times. I don't think the bullpen was one of the weaknesses of the team. It's not easy. You have to have multiple guys that can go out there on any given night."

Can one reliever emerge from the pack and take the ninth inning for himself until Guardado returns? We won't know until games start in March, but if no one claims the job, Narron knows he has options.

"One thing about it is they've all pitched in every situation possible out of the bullpen," Narron said. "We've got a couple of young guys in Coffey and Bray and veterans -- Stanton, Weathers and Cormier. You can't get a lot more experience than they've got."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.