Bullpen questions remain for Giants

Bullpen questions remain for Giants

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Armando Benitez allowed himself a brash moment after he extended his streak of scoreless innings Sunday.

"I told you -- it's coming around," he said.

Too bad the Giants' bullpen as a whole doesn't inspire the same confidence.

Two weeks before Opening Day, San Francisco's relief corps lacks definition. No roles are truly certain, mainly because nobody has pitched well enough to claim one. Manager Bruce Bochy stamped Benitez as the prospective closer last Friday, but that assignment will prove meaningless if any of the rampant trade rumors involving the embattled right-hander reach fruition. And if Benitez is traded, the jockeying for roles will continue.

"This team needs to find itself in the bullpen," pitching coach Dave Righetti admitted. "It's gotta get solidified."

Assumptions aren't solid. Yet, that's all the Giants currently can cling to regarding their bullpen. If Benitez isn't traded and opens the season as the closer, his setup men most likely will be left-hander Steve Kline and right-handers Brian Wilson and Kevin Correia. Right-hander Vinnie Chulk and left-handers Jack Taschner and Jonathan Sanchez could earn jobs as middle-inning or situational relievers. Brad Hennessey is a leading candidate for long-relief duty.

That's eight pitchers, one more than the Giants are expected to keep in the bullpen. Right-hander Scott Munter and non-roster right-handers David Cortes and Scott Atchison remain in camp, which intensifies the competition.

"To me, there aren't that many [favorites]," Righetti said. "There are a lot of different ways we can go."

The relievers with the least status have performed the best, which complicates matters. Cortes, a 33-year-old Colorado Rockies castoff, owns a 1.69 ERA. Atchison, who made 31 appearances for Seattle from 2004-05, has a 2.89 ERA.

Wilson has trimmed his ERA to 2.25, but Righetti called his overall performance "erratic." Correia (4.50), Chulk (5.14), Munter (5.68), Kline (7.71), Taschner (10.12) and Hennessey (11.45) all have struggled at times. Sanchez (10.80 ERA) has worked only five innings in three appearances and is still trying to gain arm strength.

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One bad performance often skews a reliever's statistics; moreover, Spring Training numbers are frequently deceiving. So Righetti is somewhat sympathetic to the relievers' plight.

"Spring Training for relievers is tough," Righetti said. "Almost everybody should be out there more. It's impossible to get guys proper innings. Short relievers are always under the gun. Every time they go out there, they live and die by one lousy inning."

Benitez is the lone reliever to avoid any lousy innings, making four scoreless one-inning appearances. His fastball barely reaches 90 mph, but he has maintained command, as his walk total (zero) demonstrates.

Skeptics have said that Benitez, who blew 12 of 48 save chances from 2005-06, is driven to succeed by his pending free agency. He's in the final year of a three-year, $21 million deal. The Giants would be spared at least some of that burden if they traded him. Boston, Florida and Seattle have been mentioned as possible suitors.

But right now, Righetti doesn't care what drives Benitez, as long as he pitches well.

"I have to coach him like he's going to be here," Righetti said.

To that end, the Giants used Wilson in the eighth inning and Benitez in the ninth last Friday against Colorado, staging a dress rehearsal for the regular season.

"We have to start establishing something so the rest of the team will say, 'This is maybe what it's going to look like,'" Righetti said. "We've heard talk about Armando [being traded], but I have to get him ready to be our guy or a late-inning pitcher for us, one way or another. I'm not handing the job to anybody. This is the only guy we have with experience."

If Benitez is traded, the bullpen's anchor will become Wilson, who thrived as a closer in the Puerto Rican Winter League by recording 14 saves and pitching 16 2/3 shutout innings in 17 appearances.

"The Puerto Rico thing was very important for him," Righetti said. "When he can control his fastball, he's pretty tough. He's going to pitch late, one way or another."

But since little else is certain, the rest of the Giants' Cactus League season and even the four exhibitions in the Bay Area preceding the April 3 opener against San Diego will serve as a proving ground for the relievers.

"It's going to be an interesting last two weeks," Righetti said.

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