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Giants working to sort out bullpen

Giants working to sort out bullpen this spring

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- If finding somebody to protect leads in the ninth inning is the most crucial issue the Giants face during Spring Training, designating the best pitchers for the seventh and eighth innings is close behind.

The Giants' bullpen remains a mostly amorphous mass that awaits manager Bruce Bochy's handiwork. Although a handful of relievers are virtually assured of spots on the Opening Day roster, no roles have been assigned.

Bochy's reputation for shaping solid bullpens through 12 seasons as San Diego's manager precedes him -- although it certainly helped him with the Padres to have the likes of Trevor Hoffman, Scott Linebrink and Cla Meredith at his disposal.

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Suggesting that Bochy can magically put San Francisco's relief corps on par with San Diego's would be a stretch. But after a season in which the Giants ranked 11th among National League bullpens with a 4.73 ERA, they'd welcome any improvement.

First comes the competition for jobs, which at this stage involves 10 relievers vying for five spots.

"You don't have to be lights-out -- you can't put that pressure on yourself -- but you have to be good," said left-hander Jack Taschner, who has pitched parts of the previous two seasons with the Giants. "You can't go in there with the [attitude] 'I'll get a spot by default,' because there is no default this year."

Conventional wisdom dictates that veterans Armando Benitez and Steve Kline are guaranteed jobs. That could change in Benitez's case if he's traded, as has been speculated. Benitez has acknowledged, and Giants general manager Brian Sabean has concurred, that he wouldn't fit on the team outside of the closer's role, indicating that the right-hander will be jettisoned one way or another if he doesn't pitch effectively in Cactus League games.

Some of the other 10 are better positioned to win jobs than others. Kevin Correia will make the team, barring injury or a colossal lapse in performance. So will Jonathan Sanchez, who's also contending for the fifth starter's berth. Brian Wilson is the likely closer if Benitez doesn't reclaim the role. Brad Hennessey is the leading candidate to be the long reliever who eats multiple innings when a starter leaves prematurely.

That leaves Taschner, Vinnie Chulk, Billy Sadler, Erick Threets and non-roster invitee David Cortes jostling for one or two openings, depending on what happens to the aforementioned relievers. The resulting pressure to perform can be suffocating -- or motivating.

"It's better," Taschner said, "because it keeps your focus up."

Pitching for Toronto last season, Chulk entered camp in 2006 relatively certain that he would make the team. He prefers things this way.

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"Last year was probably the first time I didn't have to [scramble for a job]," said Chulk, who's out of Minor League options and thus can't be demoted before he's offered to all other clubs through waivers. "It's not that I was lax or anything, but I just didn't feel right. I like to be out there knowing that I have to compete."

With Bochy beginning his first season as San Francisco's manager, the ground for competition is especially fertile.

"Nothing's been said to us, but the feeling that all of us have with Bochy and 'Rags' [pitching coach Dave Righetti] is that it really is an open competition," Taschner said. "There isn't any favoritism. It's going to be fair."

Bochy would prefer to be unencumbered by bullpen questions when the regular season begins.

"When we break camp here, I'd like to have close to specific roles," he said. "They change, obviously, but how they throw will dictate their roles."

Ending the malaise that has gripped the bullpen for the past three seasons is the Giants' ultimate goal. In 2004, they ranked third in the NL with 28 blown saves and 13th with a 4.53 bullpen ERA. The following season, San Francisco blew 28 more saves to lead the league. Last season, seven different Giants recorded saves, reflecting the bullpen's versatility but also its instability.

The Giants' lack of a definite closer and proven setup men indicate that this season won't be different. But at least the possibility of a turnaround exists.

"It's nice having a clean slate," Taschner said.

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

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