Can Jonathan Broxton close it out?
At least a month, based on what we have been told all winter. That's the amount of rope club officials are tentatively extending to the right-hander. Still, that could change if he struggles in spring training. Although closers are rarely judged much by what they do in spring training (they rarely make more than a handful of one-inning appearances, usually not in the ninth inning), the spotlight will shine unusually bright on Broxton this spring, and rightfully so.
In fairness, Broxton has put together enough of a track record as the Dodgers' closer over the past 2.5 seasons that he probably deserves one more shot. Clearly, what he ran into last season, when he suffered seven blown saves and lost the job by mid-August, was a crisis of confidence, and it wasn't the first time that had come back to bite him (think Matt Stairs).
So the big question for Broxton now is can he get it back? If he goes out and blows away everybody in the Cactus League for six weeks, that doesn't exactly qualify as an affirmative answer. Fact is, he has to do it on the big stage, where the games count. The Dodgers may not have to wait long to find out whether he can do that, as three of their first four regular-season games will be nationally televised, but they still have to get to the ninth inning with a lead.
By the time former Dodgers manager Joe Torre finally announced Aug. 13 he was changing closers, Broxton had his share of shudder-inducing moments. Remember the All-Star Game? When National League manager Charlie Manuel called on Broxton to protect a 3-1 lead in the ninth? Remember when David Ortiz led off that inning with a hard single to right field? People still kind of have to wonder what would have happened if Ortiz hadn't been thrown out at second later that inning on what should have been another base hit by John Buck.
The wheels started coming off Broxton's season five days later, when he blew what was left of what had been a four-run lead at St. Louis and the Cardinals polished off a four-game sweep. From that point, there wasn't much reason to believe in Broxton when he came in to close.
Dodgers' Big Questions
With spring training right around the corner, ESPNLosAngeles.com looks ahead at five issues facing the Dodgers.
1: Who's in center? Outfield in question »
2: Can Jonathan Broxton close it out? »
3: Will the young core rebound? »
4: How to keep Furcal, Blake healthy? »
5: Is Mattingly ready for the bigs? »
Torre called on Broxton in save situations three times, on nights when he had no one else available, after taking him out of the closer's role. Broxton blew two of them.
So Broxton may be Plan A for now, but the Dodgers better have a Plan B in place, and it appears they do.
The most obvious choice to take over if Broxton falters is Hong-Chih Kuo, a 2010 All-Star who had the best season of his career, posting a 1.20 ERA in 56 appearances, allowing less than a hit every two innings he pitched and posting a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 4:1. He became the Dodgers' primary closer after Broxton lost the job, and Kuo converted all nine of his save chances thereafter.
But Kuo presents his own set of issues, including his history of arm problems. In an attempt to prolong his career, Kuo has to be handled with care, and there is little reason to believe incoming manager Don Mattingly will be any more willing than Torre was to use Kuo on back-to-back days.
So the Dodgers might be forced to employ a committee of closers, unless another option presents itself.
One such option could be veteran Vicente Padilla at the back end of the bullpen. Padilla has been a mainstay in the Dodgers' rotation the last season and a half, and they re-signed him mostly for rotation depth. Padilla has made one relief appearance over the past nine seasons, but he spent his first three major league seasons working strictly in relief. He has the kind of repertoire that some in the organization believe makes him versatile as a pitcher and the kind of guy who just might be able to close.
Add in his fearlessness -- which isn't always a good thing but could be when it comes to bouncing back from a bad outing -- and Padilla becomes an intriguing candidate to possibly fill the role.
For now, the job is Broxton's to lose, but he has a lot to prove -- to the fans, to Mattingly and mostly to himself.Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.