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Around the Horn: Bullpen

Giants hope youngsters come through

The following is the sixth in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Bullpen.

Entering this offseason, the Giants knew that upgrading their bullpen would be essential to improving overall in 2008. Yet their most significant acquisitions among relievers were a non-roster invitee and a Rule 5 Draft pick.

Unwilling to pay the inflated cost for accomplished relievers -- many free agents commanded annual salaries of $3 million or higher -- the Giants elected to give their relatively young bullpen another opportunity and hope that increased competition will raise the group's performance.

"We're just as capable -- for the league minimum," right-hander Brian Wilson jokingly said.

To some degree, the Giants began altering their bullpen last season en route to enduring a National League-high 33 defeats by relievers and a 39-55 record in games decided by two runs or fewer. By September, they settled on Wilson as the primary closer, with right-handers Tyler Walker and Brad Hennessey serving as the top setup men.

"We were better," manager Bruce Bochy said. "We held those leads and won a lot of those close ballgames we were losing earlier."

Much of that was due to Wilson, who converted six of seven save opportunities and recorded a 2.28 ERA in 24 appearances after his Aug. 11 recall. Wilson's effort all but assured him of claiming the closer's role he had a chance to win before he struggled last year in Spring Training (7.71 ERA in 13 Cactus League games)

"If he comes in this spring and throws the ball like he did [late in the season], it's going to be his job," Bochy said.

If not, the Giants have options. They can turn to Walker, who saved 23 games in 2005 and rebounded nicely from 2006 Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery by finishing 2-0 with a 1.26 ERA in 15 appearances, or Hennessey, who led the Giants with 19 saves in his first full season as a reliever.

Numerous candidates exist for the other three or four bullpen spots, including left-handers Jose Capellan, Steve Kline, Jack Taschner, Pat Misch and Erick Threets and right-handers Vinnie Chulk, Randy Messenger, Billy Sadler, Merkin Valdez, Keiichi Yabu and Bartolome Fortunato.

San Francisco Giants
Catchers: Molina's durability a plus
Corner IF: Ortmeier has edge at first
Middle IF: Second base up for grabs
Outfielders: Youngsters to compete
Starters: Youth is served
Bullpen: Youngsters will be key
Bench: Roster crunch in outfield
Capellan, the Giants' selection in last December's Rule 5 Draft, hasn't pitched above Double-A but struck out 71 while walking only 11 in 75 2/3 innings for the Red Sox's Lowell farm club last year. Threets must prove that he can harness his control and mechanics.

Kline, 35, intends to rebound from posting a 4.70 ERA, the highest for a full season in his 11-year career. He and Taschner, who occasionally sparkled (51 strikeouts in 50 innings) yet recorded a 5.40 ERA, must fare better against left-handed batters. They hit .318 and .316 off Kline and Taschner, respectively.

Misch, who relieved in 45 of his 52 appearances with Fresno and the Giants last year, could fit as a long reliever. Another possibility for that role is the "loser" of the fifth-starter's race between Kevin Correia and Jonathan Sanchez.

Chulk is expected to be at full health after missing last September with a circulatory ailment that numbed his right middle finger. He shared the club lead with 57 appearances at the time he was sidelined. Messenger, who throws close to 100 mph but doesn't miss many bats (34 strikeouts in 64 1/3 innings with the Marlins and Giants), will be watched closely. Same with Sadler, who has a strikeout pitch (59 K's in 42 1/3 innings at Triple-A Fresno) but can get hit hard, as his 5.95 ERA attests.

Valdez, 26, will try to overcome September 2006 Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery that sidelined him all of last year and derailed his progress. The Giants hope that Yabu, a non-roster invitee along with Fortunato, can duplicate the effectiveness he often showed with Oakland in 2005, when he finished 4-0 with a 4.50 ERA in 40 games. That followed an 11-year stint with the Hanshin Tigers of the Japanese Central League.

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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