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03/13/07 7:55 PM ET

Billingsley sent to the bullpen

Hendrickson, Kuo, Tomko remain most likely to fill LA rotation

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- The crowded field for the Dodgers' fifth starter job was narrowed by one Tuesday when Chad Billingsley was notified he would be pitching out of the bullpen this year.

Billingsley, considered one of the Dodgers' best starting prospects, has made only six professional relief appearances -- two in 2005 with Double-A Jacksonville, two last year for the Dodgers during the regular season and twice against the Mets in the playoffs when he was a late replacement for the injured Joe Beimel.

His elimination leaves the club with three primary candidates for the final starting spot -- Hong-Chih Kuo, Brett Tomko and Mark Hendrickson -- along with non-roster pitcher Joe Mays and Eric Stults. All have pitched relatively well this spring. The winner will join Derek Lowe, Jason Schmidt, Brad Penny and Randy Wolf in the rotation.

Manager Grady Little said the decision on Billingsley was the result of the Dodgers' depth of starters and timing. It was made now, in part, to free up innings for the numerous starting pitchers preparing for the season, in part so Billingsley can focus on his new role.

"Like we told him, a lot of positives will come from this. This will be good for him and good for the club to start the season," said Little. "It won't do anything but help him going through a season like that. We still feel he will be a dominant starter in the Major Leagues for a long time, but he's still got things to learn.

"With the situation we have right now, we have the luxury to do this. We're not only doing it for him, but for us. A lot of times you have to bring a young prospect and put him right in there, when all things being equal, you'd like him to get a year in under his belt."

Little put Billingsley right in there last June 15, when he was promoted from Triple-A Las Vegas and took over Odalis Perez's spot in the rotation at age 21. After the All-Star break he went 7-2 with a 3.15 ERA and finished the year 7-4, 3.80 despite missing almost three weeks with a strained oblique muscle.

Billingsley has a maximum-effort delivery and he was plagued by high pitch counts in nearly all of his starts, pitching into trouble and often finding a way to pitch out of it, but at the cost of a high pitch count. For whatever reason, in his limited relief appearances he seemed to pitch more efficiently.

He cannot be faulted for his spring results, as Billingsley has not allowed a run in 6 1/3 innings, with two walks and two strikeouts. He has not been given a start this spring.

Neither has Kuo, who has allowed one earned run in six innings. He has, however, allowed six walks with only two strikeouts, the worst ratio of any of the group. Kuo is intriguing because he's a hard-throwing lefty, which would provide a contrast to the other four starters.

Tomko, who came to camp in better shape with a more compact delivery, has allowed one run in seven innings with two strikeouts and one walk. Tomko opened last season in the rotation and got off to a 5-1 start. He returned from an oblique injury by volunteering to pitch out of the bullpen, where he remained the rest of the season. He has said he's determined to win back his starting job and he has the lowest opponents' batting average (.167) of the group this spring.

Hendrickson, acquired during the season from Tampa Bay, lost his starting job in August, then re-invented himself as a reliever in September, but like Tomko, he wants to start again. He has allowed six runs in 6 2/3 innings and his 8.10 ERA the highest of the group, but five of those earned runs came in his first appearance.

Mays, a one-time 17-game winner in Minnesota, is fighting his way back from elbow reconstruction surgery. He's allowed two runs in seven innings with four strikeouts and one walk. Stults, who was clutch with a pennant-race start against the Mets last year, has been one of the forgotten. He pitched well in a start last week, then allowed three runs Sunday and has been charged with four runs in seven innings.

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