Padres Insider: The Relievers

The San Diego Padres are ecstatic to have Trevor Hoffman back in the lineup this year. The team is counting on him netting 40+ saves this season, with a few scraps thrown the way of Rod Beck and Akinori Otsuka. The rest of the bullpen figures to be a Cactus League battle with the youth trying to supplant the veterans. Expect a surprise or two in this strong bullpen. Here is the early word from spring training:

The Padres believe they now have one of the better bullpens in baseball. They are confident if their starters can give them six innings of work, they will get the win.

RHP Trevor Hoffman, 36, didn't pitch until last September after two rounds of shoulder surgery.

Padres re-signed him after buying out his option for 2004. Padres' all-time leader with 350 saves didn't register one in 2003, but came back strong. The early signs in '04 say he is healthy, a great sign for ‘Hells Bells'.

RHP Rod Beck, 35, had a 1.78 ERA in 36 appearances with the Padres in 2003. He was 20-for-20 in save opportunities with San Diego in 2003 after Padres resurrected his career with June 2 signing from Cubs Triple-A team.

He decided to return to the Padres and has acknowledged that Hoffman is the closer. Originally, the team was not sure how he would handle playing second fiddle, but he has accepted it with grace.

RHP Akinori Otsuka, 32, signed after gaining his freedom from Japan's Chunichi Dragons. He was 1-3 with 2.09 ERA and 17 saves in 51 games in Japan last year. Otsuka could close for the Padres if needed.

The Padres like his sharp slider and 11-to-1 strikeout-to-walks ratio. Not only does he throw strikes, but also he is also new to the league. The team thinks he will be something special and create a bridge to Beck and Hoffman.

RHP Antonio Osuna, 30, signed a one-year free agent contract with the Friars. He has already developed a relationship with Otsuka and is working on teaching him bunting techniques at the plate.

Osuna was 2-5 with a 3.73 ERA in 48 appearances with the Yankees last year. The Mexican native was 24-21 with a 3.28 ERA with the Dodgers from 1995-2000. The Padres last year clocked his fastball between 92-97. In a pinch, he could be used as a closer.

RHP Scott Linebrink, 27, was the most pleasant pitching surprise of the Padres 2003. His reward was a new contract after he posted a 2.82 ERA in 43 games.

Linebrink can go long and short and work two and three days in a row. The Padres love more than just his durability, he is eager to go the extra mile.

LHP Kevin Walker, 27, had Tommy John surgery and has not bounced back to form quickly. So far this spring he is impressing. He seems to have regained his zip and has an extra bonus – he is one of only two lefthanders seriously vying for a spot in the bullpen.

This could be a watershed spring for a pitcher once considered among the top prospects in organization. H had 5.40 ERA in 11 late-season games with the Padres last season.

LHP Edgar Huerta, 24, came to camp as a non-roster invitee. He signed a minor league contract on a transfer from Culican of the Mexican League. But the Padres love his breaking ball. He most likely will start the season with Triple-A Portland.

"They're very high on Huerta," says Jim Callis of Baseball America.

"San Diego officials believe Huerta will be more comfortable in his second exposure to the United States. He'll need to improve his command. He doesn't have an offspeed pitch to fall back on, though that's less crucial because he's a reliever. The Padres say Huerta has closer potential, and they'll break him in by using him in a setup role this year in either the majors or Triple-A."

RHP Jay Witasick, 31, had a disappointing 2003 (3-7, 4.53 ERA in 46 games). That came after signing a two-year contract as a free agent. He opened the year on the disabled list after suffering arm injury while flinging trash into a dumpster last spring.

With other players banging on the door and the potential of an Ismael Valdes or Sterling Hitchcock in the bullpen, Witasick is on the short list to be moved or lose his spot in the bullpen.

With so much potential in the bullpen, someone will have to be moved to Triple-A and off the roster entirely.

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