Paulino looking to make an impression
Young outfielder-turned-pitcher tries to land a starting job
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Felipe Paulino felt a rush of satisfaction as he strode off the mound for the last time before the offseason began last Sept. 30, knowing that he had accomplished something big.
Sure, it was only one start. And yes, no one was paying much attention to him, for one big reason: Craig Biggio had just played in the last game of his Major League career, and the 43,823 fans who crammed into Minute Maid Park that day cared little about the final score or who was on the mound.
Paulino, the only Double-A player to receive a callup when rosters expanded in September, had no problem being the secondary story on a big day, historically speaking. The young right-hander had one goal when he took the mound that Sunday afternoon: Give the decision-makers something to think about over the long offseason.
Mission accomplished. Against the Braves that day, Paulino tossed six shutout innings, allowing two hits while striking out three.
"My last game here that year, I think, for me, that was the best game," Paulino said. "It was something I'll remember forever: six shutout innings, the last game for Biggio, the opportunity to pitch in front of a full stadium. It was so great pitching that game."
Although the attention was focused elsewhere that day, Paulino indeed made quite an impression on the group sitting in the general manager's booth. Ed Wade, who had been named to his GM post just a week earlier, took note, and he'll be watching the strapping right-hander closely this spring.
"You have to impressed with the overall stuff that he's got," Wade said. "We're going to pay a lot of attention to him in this camp. We think he's got a chance to be a part of our future, sooner rather than later, possibly. Every time we've talked about our club during the winter, Paulino's name has come up as a high priority."
Dewey Robinson, who has known Paulino since Paulino signed as an amateur free agent in 2001, was also at that final game in 2007, the same day Robinson was promoted from director of pitching development to pitching coach of the Major League club.
"It was almost surreal, what was going on around him," Robinson recalled. "He was the sidebar, but I was really, really pleased with his performance, being able to settle down and pitch. That's what we all think he's capable of doing. He's got a great arm, great stuff. Off-the-charts kind of stuff."
That "stuff" includes a four-seam fastball that hits 97 mph, plus a two-seamer that will sink and tail. Add to that a sharp curveball, a hard slider and an impressive changeup, and the Astros could have a power arm with strong command of four pitches helping their rotation in 2008.
In these early stages of Spring Training, Paulino is considered to be on the bubble, the sixth man competing for a spot in a five-man rotation. Though he may be ticketed to Triple-A Round Rock to start the season, he could change several minds during the month-long exhibition season, which will start at the end of the month.
Chris Sampson is the leading candidate to win the No. 5 spot, but the decision-makers are keeping an open mind.
"[Paulino's] going to play a big role -- if not at the beginning of the year than at some point during the year," manager Cecil Cooper. "You can't go through a season with just 12 pitchers. That was my message to him the first day -- be ready to pitch. We're going to need you over the course of the summer. Be prepared. Impress us in Spring Training."
Paulino is tagged as a starter, so his odds to slide into the bullpen mix are remote.
"At this point in time, that's what we're thinking," Cooper said. "He'll get a chance to start and get stretched out just like the rest of them. If he makes the kind of showing we hope he makes, he'll be one of the guys. If not, then I'm sure at some point over the course of the year he'll get his opportunity."
Last year, Paulino compiled a 6-9 record with a 3.62 ERA over 22 games (21 starts) for Double-A Corpus Christi. His strong finish earned him a callup to the big leagues, and though his 2-1 record and 7.11 ERA over five games (three starts) reveals that he had his share of struggles, he demonstrated composure and ability that extended far beyond his stats line.
Robinson marveled at how far Paulino has come since joining the organization as a 17-year-old outfielder-turned-pitcher.
"I thought it was one of the best arms I'd ever seen," Robinson said. "To his credit, he just worked very, very hard on his delivery, on his pitches, on his composure. It was nice to see how he developed and how everything came together last year."
Despite being on the outside looking in, the 24-year-old Paulino, one of the few "untouchables" during Wade's busy offseason of trading, is ready for the challenge this spring.
"When they called me up last year, I believe they wanted to see how I would pitch in the big leagues," he said. "Now, this year, I have the opportunity to get one of the spots in the rotation. I'll just try to come to Spring Training and work hard and show everybody I'm ready for that spot."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.