This article is part of our John Sickels' Column series.
Report on Felipe Paulino
The Houston Astros farm system is thin, but one of their more interesting properties is right-hander Felipe Paulino, who had an excellent start for the major league team on April 19. Can he contribute more than just one good start? Let's take a look.
Felipe Paulino was signed by the Astros in 2001, as a free agent out of the Dominican Republic. After two seasons in the Venezuelan Summer League, he made his North American debut in the Appalachian League in 2003, posting a 5.61 ERA with a 27:19 K:BB ratio in 26 innings for Martinsville. He had severe control problems in a repeat Appy League experience in '04, resulting in a 7.59 ERA in 32 innings, but began to put things together with a 3.82 ERA and a 34/11 K/BB in 31 innings in the New York-Penn League in '05. He finally pitched a full season in the 2006 Carolina League, resulting in a 4.35 ERA with a 91:59 K:BB in 126 innings, though he impressed scouts with the quality of his stuff. He took a huge step forward in 2007, posting a 3.62 ERA with a 110:49 K:BB in 112 innings for Double-A Corpus Christi, then making his major league debut late in the year. Expected to contribute in the majors in '08, he instead missed almost the entire season with a sore shoulder, limited to just one inning of work in Triple-A. Healthy again this spring, he pitched well in his first two Triple-A outings and is now in the majors again.
TRADITIONAL SCOUTING REPORT
Paulino is a stocky pitcher, listed anywhere from 6-1 to 6-3, and between 240 and 260 pounds. A right-handed hitter and thrower, he was born October 5, 1983. Scouts aren't wild about his body shape and he has to watch his weight, but despite his size, he is a good enough natural athlete that he was once a shortstop. He has strong legs and excellent arm strength: his fastball has been clocked as high as 102 MPH, and is consistently in the 93-97 MPH range. Paulino's secondary pitches are a curveball and changeup. The curveball is a plus pitch when he throws it properly, but the changeup is erratic and is often just a show-me offering. His command is likewise inconsistent: when things are going well he can show surprisingly sharp control, but he still fights a tendency to overthrow. When that happens, his mechanics come unglued and his control falls apart, particularly with his breaking ball. Most scouts believe that Paulino will be better off in relief, where he doesn't have to worry as much about a third pitch, but given his arm strength the Astros have been reluctant to give up on him as a starter. He's a brutal fielder, and still needs work on the finer points of moundsmanship.
Paulino's statistical track record is mixed. His strikeout rates have been good and he gets his share of grounders, but his numbers have never really jumped out at analysts. His walk rates are usually higher than ideal. It's notable that his biggest improvement step came when he reached Double-A in 2007, as he took a step forward with his command even against better competition. Missing almost all of '08 reduces the sample size we have to work with. His numbers don't scream "top prospect" by any means.
FANTASY INVESTMENT VALUE
Paulino is a high-risk, high-reward prospect. If his command comes together and he refines the changeup, he could be a very good, even excellent, starting pitcher. If the changeup remains an issue, he still has enough stuff to be an effective reliever, even a closer. But he could also flounder around for years if his control remains wobbly, and baseball history is littered with the remains of many similar pitchers who never put it together. My opinion is that Paulino will have one or two very good major league seasons, but won't be consistently successful from year to year to year, due to command issues and/or injuries.
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Article first appeared 4/22/09