OXON HILL, Md. - The Phillies will likely enter spring training without a closer for the second straight season. This time, unlike last season, they hope to have a ninth-inning answer before opening day.

Joaquin Benoit, who signed Tuesday, is in the mix for the role along with Jeanmar Gomez, Hector Neris, and Edubray Ramos. General manager Matt Klentak said it is an open competition.

Gomez saved 37 games last season after being thrust into the closer role when two others faltered. Neris relied on a nasty splitter last season to register a 2.58 ERA in 80 1/3 innings. Ramos reached the majors in June and struck out 40 batters in 40 innings. Benoit, who turns 40 in July, has spent most of his career in the eighth inning and could assume that role with the Phillies.

"We don't have a premier closer, which we would love to have, but last year we didn't either," manager Pete Mackanin said. "But Gomez was darn good for five months. Someone is going to be capable of doing that. What we have now is a deeper bullpen with more experienced pitchers."

The pitchers not selected to be the closer will join Pat Neshek, who was acquired last month from Houston, as the core of a bullpen that seems to be more reliable than the unit that finished last season as one of the worst in baseball. The Phillies bullpen allowed 296 earned runs last season and 177 of those runs - 60 percent - were scored against pitchers who are no longer with the organization. The bullpen will have a much different look than last season.

"I feel like now that with the addition of Benoit and Neshek, we have better options for the fifth and the sixth," Mackanin said. "If Gomez ends up closing, or ends up in the fifth or sixth, we are deeper and better because of that. We're going to have a lot of flexibility with the fact that Neris closed a few games, Gomez closed a lot of games, Benoit has pitched late in the game, Neshek has qualified as an experienced relief pitcher. That gives me a lot of latitude. Hey, Neshek might pitch the eighth inning on a given night. I can do that more often. I can go to my better guys - because I have better guys - more often."