Not a Rookie: Felipe Paulino
Houston Astros sophomore pitcher Felipe Paulino was used as a starter and reliever last year by the Astros, with very mixed results. What was he like as a prospect? Can Houston (and fantasy owners) expect to get more out of him in the future?
Paulino was signed by the Astros in 2001, out of the Dominican Republic. He made his North American debut in 2003, pitching 25.2 innings for Martinsville in the Appalachian League, posting a 5.61 ERA with a 27/19 K/BB in 26 innings. He drew notice for a fastball clocked as high as 98 MPH, but his breaking ball and changeup were weak, and he had significant command problems. I gave him a Grade C in my 2004 book, writing him up as a prospect because of his velocity, but cautioning against excess expectations given his rawness.
Paulino returned to the Appalachian League in 2004, making 10 starts for Greeneville but posting ugly numbers: 7.59 ERA, 37/22 K/BB in 32 innings, 30 hits allowed. The scouting reports were the same: great arm, but no idea how to pitch and no progress made despite repeating a level. I gave him another Grade C and did not put him in the 2005 book for space reasons.
Things began to change in 2005. Paulino began the season at Tri-City in the New York-Penn League, posting a 3.82 ERA with a 34/11 K/BB in 31 innings, allowing 21 hits. Promoted to full-season Class A Lexington in August, he pitched well in seven games (five starts), posting a 1.85 ERA with a 30/6 K/BB in 24 innings. Scouts reported greatly improved control, his fastball working at a consistent 95-97 MPH with peaks at 100 MPH. His curveball improved from poor to mediocre, but he didn't make much progress with his changeup. Nevertheless, the sharpening of his command was obvious. I gave him a Grade C+ in the 2006 book, noting that he could "turn into anything between Octavio Dotel, Ramon Ortiz, and innumerable Class A burnouts."
Moved up to Salem in the Carolina League for '06, Paulino had an okay season, going 9-7, 4.35 with a 91/59 K/BB in 126 innings, allowing 119 hits. He still hit 100 MPH a few times, though his working velocity dipped a tad to "just" 93-96 MPH. Scouts reported improvement with his curveball, though this didn't really show up in the numbers, and his command remained an issue due to problems with his release point. I kept him with a Grade C+ in the 2007 book, noting that he was still more thrower than pitcher and that he might fit better in the bullpen than in the rotation.
Assigned to Double-A Corpus Christi for 2007, Paulino made significant progress, improving his curveball to a plus pitch. Even his changeup had some good moments, though this remained a work-in-progress. His fastball dropped a hair more to 92-94 MPH working velocity, but his command of the pitch was better thanks to improved mechanics, and he still touched 100 on good days. He posted a 3.62 ERA with a 110/49 K/BB in 112 innings, 103 hits allowed, showing improved command and a better strikeout rate. He got into 19 innings in a major league trial and got knocked around some (7.11 ERA, 11/7 K/BB, 22 hits allowed), but overall it was a very successful season. I raised his rating to a Grade B in the 2008 book, though I still wondered if he was a starter or reliever in the long run.
Unfortunately 2008 was a lost season: he got just two-thirds of an inning of work at Triple-A Round Rock, missing the rest of the campaign with a pinched nerve in his shoulder. Surgery was avoided, but heading into 2009 no one was exactly sure what would happen with Paulino. I moved his rating back down to a Grade C+ in the '09 book as a result of the injury uncertainty.
Aside from seven starts in Triple-A (3.12 ERA, 29/23 K/BB in 35 innings), Paulino spent most of '09 with the major league team, producing some ugly rookie numbers on the surface: 3-11 record, 6.27 ERA, 93/37 K/BB in 98 innings, 126 hits, 1.67 WHIP.
On the other hand, his FIP was much better than his ERA at 5.11; 5.11 is hardly good, but it indicates that he didn't pitch as badly as the raw numbers indicate on the surface. His tERA was even better at 4.63. Fangraphs indicates consistent 95-97 MPH velocity on his fastball, so the heat he showed in the minors is still there despite the injury issue. Indeed, Paulino's contact% was the second-best among all starting pitchers in baseball last year at 71.8% (see this Fangraphs piece). He pitched more effectively in the second half last year (5.27 ERA with a 42/17 K/BB in 43 innings after the All-Star Break.
Remember that Paulino missed all of '08 with injuries, and should probably have spent most of last year in Triple-A working the rust off. He still has some work to do with his command, and he needs to watch his weight. but there are hints in the numbers that Paulino could take a step forward in 2010. Keep a close eye on him.