SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Competition in the Giants' bullpen has reached a critical stage, with qualified contenders far outnumbering available jobs.

A handful of relievers are exempt from concern. Closer Brian Wilson and setup men Tyler Walker and Brad Hennessey are assured of roles. Left-hander Jack Taschner likely has clinched a spot on the Opening Day roster by recording a 1.08 ERA and an opponents' batting average of .115 in seven appearances.

But little else appears certain. Not including five starters and the aforementioned relievers, nine candidates remain for the other three bullpen openings, since manager Bruce Bochy probably will begin the season with a 12-man pitching staff.

Right-hander Vinnie Chulk will have a job if he's healthy. But tendinitis in Chulk's shoulder is expected to prevent him from throwing until the middle of next week, although his injury isn't considered serious. Under most circumstances, 11-year veteran Steve Kline also should be guaranteed work. But the left-hander has allowed runs in four of his seven outings and owns a 7.71 ERA.

Right-hander Merkin Valdez and left-hander Erick Threets are both out of Minor League options, which could help them force their way onto the club. Keiichi Yabu, Pat Misch and Victor Santos fit the profile of the long reliever Bochy wants to keep. Right-handers Bartolome Fortunato and Billy Sadler would seem to be long shots, but have pitched well enough to merit consideration.

"You're competing every day," Chulk said. "Some guys are in a little bit better position than others, but for the most part you have to look at it as anybody's job."

Being forced to make difficult cuts is fine with the Giants, especially since skeptics have regarded the bullpen as a weak spot.

"I'd rather have a tough decision than something we'd have to settle with," pitching coach Dave Righetti said Sunday before the Giants dropped a split-squad game to the Los Angeles Angels, 5-2.

Multiple factors will influence the Giants' thinking, including the age-old argument of whether Spring Training performance eclipses track record.

If the latter counts for anything, Kline, the Major League leader in appearances for the last 10 seasons (750), has a definite edge. But the Giants must decide whether Kline's 4.70 ERA last year, his highest since his 1997 rookie season, was an aberration or a foreshadowing of an irreversible lapse.

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"There's two ways you can look at it," Kline said. "One way is, you need to compete. The other way is, you need to get work. Plus, I've been through the mud. If you don't know what I can do already, it's their decision what they want to do."

Whether the Giants deem a long reliever essential will depend largely on the condition of the starting rotation -- which currently looks shaky. Noah Lowry is expected to miss April after undergoing forearm surgery, and consistency has eluded the likely season-opening contingent of Barry Zito (14.92 ERA), Matt Cain (6.46), Tim Lincecum (9.00), Kevin Correia (6.75) and Jonathan Sanchez (6.55).

"You can have only so many one-inning guys," Righetti said, indicating that Misch and Santos, who have extensive starting experience, and Yabu, who has pitched two or more innings four times in the Cactus League, will continue to receive consideration.

These will be collaborative, organizational decisions, partly since the Giants futures of Valdez and Threets are on the line. Neither can be sent to Triple-A without being exposed to waivers, so the Giants risk losing them to another team if they don't keep them in the Majors. Valdez, who has pitched shutout ball in six of his eight appearances, and Threets, who has blanked opponents in three of four outings, are complicating matters for the Giants.

"Sometimes, certain people end up on the team in certain years and it doesn't really matter what the competition is," Righetti said.

Fortunato, who lowered his ERA to 1.35 with a scoreless seventh inning Sunday against the Angels, and Sadler, who worked five scoreless innings in four appearances until enduring a five-run sixth inning in Sunday's split-squad game against Kansas City, also are bidding to remain in contention -- a process that could extend beyond the Cactus League schedule and into the slate of four Bay Area exhibition games March 27-30. Righetti likes those games because they more closely simulate regular-season action.

"It's still spring, but it's also a ramp up," Righetti said. "It gives you a good barometer."