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Around the Horn: Bullpen

Saito anchors deep Dodgers bullpen

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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.

Who was the greatest free-agent signing in recent Dodgers history?

Kirk Gibson is one obvious answer, although as great as 1988 was, he had only one productive Dodgers season.

Hideo Nomo would be a candidate, not only for his performance but for blazing the trail for other Japanese stars to follow. Maybe Todd Worrell, a two-time Dodgers All-Star.

But for exceeding expectations, the runaway winner would have to be current closer Takashi Saito. Last year, his second in the pressure role, he became the first Dodgers All-Star originally signed to a Minor League contract.

At age 38, Saito enters his third season as closer, coming off a year even better than his first. In 2007, he converted 39 of 43 saves with a microscopic 1.40 ERA, best in the league and only a couple ticks off Eric Gagne's 1.20 in 2003.

Remember Eric Gagne? That's another reason why Saito has been so amazing. Consider the shoes he had to fill. The Dodgers did some great scouting to target Saito and get him signed, but there was some dumb luck involved in his meteoric impact.

Management didn't even put him on the Opening Day roster in 2006. He got his callup when Gagne broke down one week into the season, but it wasn't until May that he was given his first save opportunity and late May when he was officially made the closer by Grady Little.

Clearly, Saito found his level and has been lights-out ever since, keeping closer-in-training Jonathan Broxton in his setup role a little longer than anyone expected. Broxton, only 23, was an overpowering presence last season until a September collapse that most observers attributed to poor command and not injury, because his velocity never tailed off.

Those two make up the back end of a Dodgers bullpen that remains largely intact from last year, when it ranked fifth in league ERA at 3.82. Joe Beimel returns as the primary left-hander, with Scott Proctor, acquired at the trade deadline, reunited with manager Joe Torre as the primary workhorse.

Los Angeles Dodgers
Catchers: Martin becoming a fixture
Corner IF: Third base up for grabs
Middle IF: Veteran Kent back for more
Outfielders: Talented foursome
Starters: Consistency might be key
Bullpen: Saito anchors deep group
DH/Bench: Feb. 13

The backup workhorse will be Rudy Seanez, who took nearly the entire offseason to reach agreement for a return at age 39. Seanez made the club as a non-roster player last spring and delivered a strong first half, but struggled when the workload seemed to wear him down.

Barring injury, the long reliever role will likely go to the loser of the fifth-starter competition between a pair of studs trying to reestablish their health -- Jason Schmidt and Esteban Loaiza. Schmidt is returning from major shoulder surgery after winning only one game last year. Loaiza, claimed from Oakland two starts into a recovery from back and knee surgeries, had an 8.34 ERA for the Dodgers.

Loazia's only relief appearances in the last six years were for Torre with the Yankees is 2004. Schmidt hasn't appeared out of the bullpen since 1996, so Torre figures to have an unhappy reliever on his hands regardless of who it is.

How the rest of the Dodgers' bullpen shakes out this spring is filled with unknowns. Mark Hendrickson was non-tendered. Roberto Hernandez and Chin-hui Tsao were not re-signed and D.J. Houlton was sold to Japan.

Hong-Chih Kuo and Yhency Brazoban will be looking to revive their careers following operations. Young pitchers with limited Major League experience like John Meloan, Eric Stults, Eric Hull, James McDonald and Greg Miller will try to make good first impressions on the new manager.

Their chances to make the club will be made more difficult by the presence of non-roster left-handers Tom Martin and Mike Myers, who have a combined 23 years of Major League experience. Their signings in late January indicated the club is likely to carry a second veteran lefty to support Beimel.

Familiar names among the non-roster invitees include Chan Ho Park, Tanyon Sturtze, Mike Koplove and Brian Falkenborg.

Ken Gurnick 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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