Building a bullpen

It all starts at the back end. Some Major League Baseball pundits argue that you build your team from the bullpen out. A strong bullpen will ensure leads turn into wins. A bullpen that can hold an opponent off the scoreboard will give the manager more options and allow the hitters to focus on scoring more runs. The San Diego Padres believe they have that now.

General manager Kevin Towers believes the most surprising aspect of the 2004 Padres will be the bullpen.

"I know we've done a lot elsewhere," said Towers before departing for spring training. "We traded for (catcher) Ramon Hernandez and signed (left-handed pitcher) David Wells, (center fielder) Jay Payton and Rey Ordonez to give us options as short.

"But I think the bullpen is where we've made the biggest strides."

Two of the strides were retaining right-handers Trevor Hoffman and Rod Beck when both closers could have signed elsewhere as free agents.

Towers went international to sign right-hander Akinori Otsuka (Japan) and left-hander Edgar Huerta (Mexico). Then he added right-handed free agent Antonio Osuna (Yankees) late in the winter.

"I really think the bullpen is going to be the backbone of our club," said Towers. "We're going to have a lot of games decided from the sixth inning on. And our bullpen is going to be very, very strong. We've got a lot of experience."

Much is going to depend, however, on the health of the 36-year-old Hoffman, who had two rounds of shoulder surgery in a four-month span between the end of the 2002 season and the start of the 2003 season.

The result was that Hoffman missed five months and didn't make his 2003 debut until last September. But eight of his nine outings resulted in scoreless efforts.

Since re-signing with the Padres, Hoffman has continued his exhaustive rehab program. Said Padres trainer Jim Daniel: "Trevor has been the most impressive guy I've seen this winter. He's thrown the heck out of the ball."

Towers predicts 48 saves for Hoffman. And when he needs a day off, there's Beck and two other pitchers (Otsuka and Osuna) who have closed.

The Padres have three left-handed candidates for the bullpen in Huerta, Walker and Eddie Oropesa. But the seven-man bullpen could be all right-handed, especially if Trevor Hoffman wins the No. 5 spot in the rotation and the Padres retain Ismael Valdes as a long reliever and spot starter.

Of course, if Valdes wins the last spot in the rotation, it could be Hitchcock in the bullpen.

Six of the seven spots seen committed to Hoffman, Beck, Otsuka, Jay Witasick, Osuna and Scott Linebrink.

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