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02/07/08 10:00 AM ET

Around the Horn: Bullpen

Spring competition abounds for spot in Astros' relief corps

The following is the sixth in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Each week until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: the bullpen.

HOUSTON -- Competition between teammates is the norm during Spring Training, and while the Astros will have an open spot available here and there in terms of backup outfielders and starting pitchers, most of the true competition will surround the bullpen.

Manager Cecil Cooper anticipates carrying 12 pitchers when the season opens March 31, which means he'll take seven relievers. Three pitching jobs appear to be available -- one in the rotation, and two in the 'pen.

"There are some opportunities for people during Spring Training," Cooper said. "The names keep coming."

Barring exhibition season meltdowns, five relievers are ticketed for the bullpen -- Dave Borkowski, Doug Brocail, Geoff Geary, Oscar Villarreal and Jose Valverde.

Four more on the 40-man roster will compete for jobs -- right-handers Ryan Houston and Chad Paronto and lefties Mark McLemore and Wesley Wright, a Rule 5 draftee.

Felipe Paulino will also be in the mix, although he's expected to compete for a starting role. If he doesn't make the rotation, he'll likely begin the season in the rotation for Triple-A Round Rock.

Four non-roster invitees will audition for the 'pen -- right-handers Mike DeJean, Carlos Hines and Brian Moehler, and left-hander Stephen Randolph. Moehler and Randolph pitched for the Astros in 2007.

General manager Ed Wade, self-described as bullpen-obsessed, focused on the relief corps while reshaping the roster this offseason. The only holdover among the five already projected to make the team is Borkowski. Everyone else is new to the team, including the new trio that will comprise the back end of the bullpen.

A year ago, Chad Qualls, Dan Wheeler and Brad Lidge were the projected anchors. This year, it's Brocail, Villarreal and Valverde. Only Valverde has a defined role, however. Brocail and Villarreal are the leading candidates to step into the setup role, but both are durable and versatile enough to contribute at other times when needed.

"To use Villarreal late in the game, I think he's capable of handling that role," Wade said. "But I think if you look at his career and years in Atlanta, he had the ability to go back-to-back days, multiple innings. And, he's got starting experience. I think we've got some durable arms, and I think we have some quality."

Houston Astros
Catchers: Towles stakes his claim
Corner IF: Veterans to anchor corners
Middle IF: Fresh faces up middle
Outfielders: Bourn's speed fills need
Starters: Oswalt leads the way
Bullpen: Hurlers set to compete
DH/Bench: One spot up for grabs

Wade welcomes the competition that will surround the bullpen hopefuls this spring, and he's also looking forward to figuring out how all of his offseason acquisitions fit onto this club. Not everyone will make the big league roster, but the GM is confident the Astros have the pitching depth that is so vital to a team's success over the course of a season.

Wade is anxious to find out about the lesser-known names, especially Wright, who, per Rule 5 guidelines, will have to make the team out of Spring Training and stay on the big league roster all year or be offered back to the Dodgers, his team prior to the December draft.

Wright, 22, posted a combined 3.92 ERA over 44 games between Triple-A and Double-A last year. With a real need for left-handed pitching, Wright's chances to make the club are probably slightly greater than those of Rule 5 draftees from the past.

"We have to make sure we're seeing enough of him to make a true evaluation," Wade said. "That's why there were a couple times this offseason where we had a chance, just in terms of quantity, to add a couple experienced left-handers into the mix. If the right left-hander was out there, we'd be anxious to do something like that. But just to add guys because they're left-handed, I thought that had the potential of taking away opportunities for a younger guy who our scouts like and we want to find out about."

Wright will be among three lefties vying for a job, competing with McLemore and Randolph.

A quick glance at the rotation suggests the bullpen will have to be a major force in order to compensate for the question marks surrounding the four starters not named Roy Oswalt. A stronger bullpen could mask the impact of shorter outings by the starters, and with Brandon Backe returning from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery and Chris Sampson coming off a season cut short because of elbow issues, rotation durability could be a problem.

But even with a strong bullpen, the starters will have to carry their share of the load. Wade is hopeful that the improved offense will have a positive effect on both areas of the pitching staff, considering nothing is more comforting to a pitcher than ample run support.

"I think we're well-positioned if the starters can get us deep enough in the games, that if we turn it over, we've got some good, solid arms to get the job done," he said. "Hopefully, these guys will be pitching with leads. You generate offense early in games, it creates an entirely different environment."

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.