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Deep bullpen needs to stay fresh

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- On the long list of things the Los Angeles Dodgers had to worry about coming into spring training -- the rotation that didn't have a true ace or a fifth starter, the lineup that didn't have an everyday second baseman, the bench that didn't have a left-handed power hitter, the shrinking payroll that might or might not have been the result of owner Frank McCourt's ongoing and expensive divorce -- nowhere did it say anything about the bullpen.

That was one part of the picture that was supposed to be complete. Oh, there was a spot or two still to fill, and the usual decision about whether to go with six or seven relievers, but other than that, it was all set.

And then, a not-so-funny thing happened. Two not-so-funny things, actually.

First, Ronald Belisario, who had a spectacular rookie season after making the club out of minor league camp last year, was late to camp because of visa issues in his native Venezuela, a fairly common occurrence among players from Latin countries and a twice-in-two-years occurrence for Belisario. And then, he was later. And later, and later, until he finally showed up up just four days before the Dodgers were to break camp, a point when there was no hope of his salvaging the Opening Day roster spot that should have been a lock.

Second, the oft-surgically repaired left elbow of Hong-Chih Kuo flared up again, on three occasions, during spring training. The injury isn't thought to be serious this time, and it isn't expected to keep him down long. But it will keep him out past the season opener, creating another vacancy in the bullpen.

For now, this is what it looks like: All-Star closer Jonathan Broxton and former All-Star closer George Sherrill at the back end, with Sherrill setting up for Broxton; the durable Ramon Troncoso, mostly for the seventh inning; veteran right-hander Jeff Weaver for long relief and, if needed, an occasional spot start; Rule 5 pick Carlos Monasterios, who isn't close to being ready for prime time but whose long-term ceiling is so high that club officials are willing to sacrifice a roster spot just to hold on to him; and two right-handers named Ramon Ortiz and Russ Ortiz, who aren't related and come from two different parts of the world but who also have almost identical stories of beating the longest of odds and bringing their respective careers back from life support.

If you're counting, that's seven relievers. The Dodgers probably will have to carry a 12-man pitching staff all season because of the presence of Monasterios, who has made one career start and one career relief appearance at anything above Class A.

Presumably, Belisario and Kuo will be available around the middle of April, and if they're anywhere close to as good as they were last year, the Dodgers will again boast a potentially dominant bullpen. Until then, they may have to tread water. Historically, feel-good stories like those of the Ortizes tend to not feel so good when the regular season starts, and it will be interesting to see what those aging veterans have left when the lights go on for real.

Kuo's absence leaves Sherrill as the only lefty in the pen. The only other lefty still in big league camp and still vying for a roster spot is Eric Stults. But Stults is a career starter who hasn't made a relief appearance in the majors since 2007, and besides, the Dodgers are trying to trade him and probably will waive him if they can't.

One thing the Dodgers will have in the bullpen is depth. At Triple-A Albuquerque alone, they figure to have experienced big leaguers Josh Towers, Justin Miller, Luis Ayala and Scott Dohmann, all of whom are just a phone call away. They also will have longtime prospects James McDonald and Scott Elbert starting for the Isotopes, but those two could just as easily be called up for the bullpen as the rotation.

Finally, the Dodgers will have two promising prospects who figure to be major league-ready sometime this summer: Josh Lindblom, their second-round pick in the 2008 amateur draft who will be starting for Albuquerque, and Jon Link, whom they acquired from the Chicago White Sox this winter in the Juan Pierre trade. Link already has a full season at Triple-A and didn't give up a run in any of his four Cactus League appearances this spring before he was optioned to the minor league side.

A big key for the Dodgers' bullpen will be to avoid being overworked, and the only way that can happen is if the starters go deeper into games. The rotation averaged fewer than six innings a game last year. As long as Belisario and Kuo are missing, the bridge from the starting pitcher to the seventh inning might be a little shaky, which is all the more reason the starters need to make sure that bridge isn't needed.

Glaring absences aside, the Dodgers' bullpen still appears to be their biggest strength, especially if the group can stay reasonably healthy.


Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.