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Chris Withrow making strong bid to stay in Dodgers bullpen

Withrow has struck out 33.8% of the major league batters he has faced, the 11th-best strikeout rate in MLB since the start of the 2013 campaign.

Mark Kolbe

LOS ANGELES -- Chris Withrow deserves to be in the Dodgers' major league bullpen. But sometimes deserve has nothing to do with it.

Brian Wilson is getting closer to returning from the disabled list — manager Don Mattingly estimated Wilson would be activated within a week of April 15, the first day the right-hander is eligible to be activated — and the Dodgers will need to make a corresponding roster move.

Withrow has done nothing to suggest he should be the one to go. The 25-year-old has allowed just one hit and one walk in six innings, and with nine strikeouts joins Kenley Jansen (10 strikeouts) as the only Dodgers relievers with more than five strikeouts so far.

"His stuff is power stuff, it's back end," Mattingly said on Wednesday. "It's late in the game stuff, and we're seeing it. He's been lights out."

Withrow has retired 14 straight batters, and of his last 18 batters faced the only one to reach base did so via error. The 25-year-old right-hander has flourished since shifting from starting to relief in 2012, and since making his major league debut in 2013 has 52 strikeouts and just 14 walks in 40⅔ innings, with a 2.60 ERA.

Part of his success in 2014 can be attributed to a new pitch he has developed, a variation on his slider that acts almost like a cutter.

"Sometimes it’s helpful to have less movement and sometimes it’s not," Withrow told Pedro Moura of the Orange County Register on Sunday. "My ultimate goal is to get where I can command both. I can turn them into two separate pitches, sort of like what Brian Wilson does."

Back to Wilson. When the setup man returns from the disabled list, the Dodgers will need to remove someone from the active roster. In the current seven-man bullpen there are five veterans with guaranteed major league contracts and two with minor league options: Paco Rodriguez and Withrow.

Rodriguez turns 23 next Wednesday, roughly around the time Wilson could be activated. The southpaw Rodriguez was one of the Dodgers' most reliable weapons in the bullpen in 2013 — third in the National League with 76 appearances — before a late-season fade left him off the NLCS roster. This season, Rodriguez has allowed a run in his six games, with five strikeouts and six baserunners allowed.

Of the 14 above-average leverage situations (as defined by Baseball-Reference when a reliever enters the game) Dodgers relievers have faced this season, Kenley Jansen has pitched four of them, J.P. Howell three, Chris Perez two, Brian Wilson two, Withrow two, and Rodriguez one. So the young guys are trusted enough to put in tough situations.

While the Dodgers are high on both Rodriguez and Withrow, will it be enough to keep one of them on the roster. While it's easy to say 'release Brandon League' and his $15 million guaranteed salary remaining on his contract or 'dump Jamey Wright' because who really needs a long man anyway, the Dodgers aren't going to abandon their offseason plan of having bullpen depth after just two weeks of the season.

"It's what we ask for. In spring training, we ask these guys to make us make tough decisions," Mattingly said. "We want depth and we want guys to be competing. We want guys to say 'I don't want to go down' with their performances."

A similar decision was made at catcher as well. Tim Federowicz by all accounts is the Dodgers' second-string catcher, behind A.J. Ellis — Federowicz has started both games since getting recalled — but Drew Butera, who doesn't have options, remains on the big league roster while Federowicz, with an option year remaining, started the year in Triple-A. It allows the Dodgers to keep both players at a position without much organizational depth.

Mattingly compared the bullpen depth logjam to the Dodgers outfield situation, which has seen only one complete game (last Friday's home opener) since June 3, 2013 when all four of Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig were all healthy and available.

"We've kicked around a little bit what our options are. A lot of these decisions make themselves. We'll see what happens," Mattingly said.

After all, a lot can happen in a week.