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Depth ensures stiff 'pen competition for A's

Though several relievers appear to be locks, Melvin will be evaluating through camp

Depth ensures stiff 'pen competition for A's

PHOENIX -- A's lefty Travis Blackley was all set to put his name on the sign up sheet for Team Australia's World Baseball Classic roster. He began his offseason prep work earlier than normal and even pitched three innings for his homeland Melbourne Aces as recently as three weeks ago for the chance to face hitters.

But then it hit him.

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"I love playing for my country, but I love my career more," Blackley said. "I got to do whatever I can to defend my position. It might not even be about me pitching badly here, but if I go there, there could be someone else in their face pitching well while I'm not around to defend the job.

"I worked too long and hard to get to where I am right now. Granted, I can't control things, and a spot on this team isn't just mine automatically. I still have to win it, and that'd be nice."

Particularly since Blackley, now 30, has never broken camp with a club before, despite this marking his 10th professional season. So he's staying put.

That's probably a smart choice, considering competition in the bullpen is fierce in A's camp this spring. The versatile Blackley, though stretching out as a starter, is likely to earn a roster spot as a long reliever. Oakland enters the spring slate with the same set of relievers that appeared on its postseason roster, having also added a handful of pitchers to the mix since.

There's trade acquisitions Chris Resop, Fernando Rodriguez and Andrew Werner, along with plenty of non-roster invitees like Hideki Okajima, Mike Ekstrom, Justin Thomas, Kyler Newby and Brian Gordon -- all looking to make an impression on this deep ballclub.

"We're in an enviable position," manager Bob Melvin said. "I don't think I've ever had this much quality depth, righties and lefties, in the bullpen. We have a lot of guys, and we're going to have to make some decisions."

Typically Melvin doesn't put too much stock into spring performances. But the wealth of arms around him this year will alter that thinking, much like the current plethora of infielders will.

"You use it when you have to use it," he said. "When there's competition, you just have to evaluate accordingly and use Spring Training because whoever is involved is mostly playing under the same variables."

Closer Grant Balfour and setup men Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle, who helped the A's bullpen to a 2.90 ERA last year, are locks to make the team, and it's likely Jerry Blevins and Blackley fall into that category, too. Pat Neshek and Resop may carry an edge, also, because they're out of options.

But even that list doesn't include lefties Jordan Norberto and Pedro Figueroa -- who also opted out of the Classic to remain in camp -- or right-hander Evan Scribner, all of whom aided the 2012 team -- not to mention any of the newcomers outside of Resop.

"I see a lot of competition, but it's a good thing," Norberto said. "When you have a big group of good pitchers, you focus and concentrate more on being prepared, because even though I know I did a really good job last year, nothing is ever for sure. That year is over and I have to win another spot this year.

"I'm a little surprised, because we still have the same guys yet they brought in more guys, but it's always going to be like that. When a team's that close to going all the way, they want to get better. That's the way it is."

During their remarkable 2012 campaign, the A's, who fell one win short of advancing to the American League Championship Series, used 19 relievers, a number that largely reflects the turnover rate that exists in any Major League bullpen as a result of injuries and other unforeseen factors.

That makes impressions all the more significant this spring, as evaluations over the next six weeks will be kept on file throughout the regular season and aid in the multiple roster decisions that arise during that time.

"You can never have too many arms," Blevins said. "Things happen throughout the season. But since I've been here, the bullpen has always been a strong point of every one of our teams. I think, statistically, we've always been near the top every year, and it goes back to the depth around here.

"It seems like it's stronger than ever this year. Just look at the number of left-handers. I used to be a rarity. Now we have a ton. But I've never been a part of a bullpen that has a chance to be as dominant with the guys we have."

Jane Lee is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Major Lee-ague, and follow her on Twitter @JaneMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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