Contenders for the back of the rotation include Brian Moehler, Wesley Wright, Bud Norris and Felipe Paulino. Both for the short and long term, the Astros (and fantasy owners) would be best off if Norris and Paulino snag those last two spots.
Norris, who turns 25 tomorrow, was Houston’s sixth-round pick in the 2006 draft. A short, stout righty (6-0, 225 pounds), Norris was tabbed as a future late-inning reliever because of his size and searing mid-90′s fastball. But while the Cal Poly product made his pro debut out of the ‘pen, he has been a starter ever since, as the Astros try to extract maximum value from one of the club’s few young building blocks.
In 340.2 minor league innings, Norris has struck out 9.5 batters per nine frames. His control hasn’t been particularly sharp, however, as he has issued 3.7 BB/9. This past year at Triple-A Round Rock, Norris notched 8.4 K/9, with four walks per nine innings and a 3.41 FIP.
Getting the big league call in late July, Norris slotted into Houston’s rotation (10 starts, one relief appearance). He tossed 55.2 innings, with 8.73 K/9, 4.04 BB/9, 1.46 HR/9 and a 4.38 xFIP.
Norris has a “hard, harder, hardest” repertoire, featuring a 94 MPH fastball, 87-88 MPH slider and an 86-87 MPH changeup. Opposing batters made contact 83.9 percent of the time against his stuff on pitches within the strike zone (87-88 percent MLB average), and 75 percent of the time overall (80-81 percent average).
Bud’s bugaboos are free passes and fly ball tendencies. He has never really been known for painting the black, and while his groundball rate in the minors was 47.4 percent, he burned worms at a 37.2 percent clip in the majors. It’s probably best not to read too much into that number, given the sample size. But it bears watching, given that Minute Maid Park has inflated home run production by eight percent compared to a neutral ball park over the last three seasons.
CHONE projects Norris to compile a 4.40 FIP in 2010, with 8.43 K/9, 4.14 BB/9 and 1.14 HR/9. He’ll miss bats, and he could be a nice addition to Houston’s staff if he can rein in the walks and not allow hitters to put that Minute Maid train in harm’s way.
Norris you probably buy. But Paulino, he of a career 6.40 ERA? Believe it or not, yeah. As Carson Cistulli pointed out earlier this off-season, there’s a big gap between Paulino’s results and the processes behind those results.
Inked out of Venezuela in 2001, Paulino is a 6-2, 260 pound leviathan who also comes equipped with radar gun readings that make scouts salivate. In addition to mid-90′s gas, he totes an upper-80′s slider, with an occasional mid-70′s curveball and mid-80′s changeup. He has punched out 8.4 batters per nine frames, with 4.4 BB/9 in 386.1 career minor league innings (71 starts, 32 relief appearances).
In the majors, Paulino has been pummeled. However, the 26 year-old’s peripherals paint the picture of a talented guy who’s been hosed by some terrible luck. In 116.2 innings (20 starts, eight ‘pen appearances), Paulino has 8.02 K/9, 3.39 BB/9 and a 4.23 xFIP. Yet, his ERA is nearly 2.4 runs higher, due mostly to a .353 BABIP and a 17.6 home run per fly ball rate. When a batter has put the ball in play against Paulino, hits have fallen as if Ichiro were perpetually at the plate. On fly balls, it’s as though Ryan Braun clones were lofting all of them. Those figures are bound to drop precipitously.
Like Norris, Paulino has been pretty hard to make contact against (85.1 Z-Contact, 74 Contact). And, like Norris, his biggest challenges will be honing his control and limiting those leisurely trots around the bases. CHONE envisions a 4.75 FIP for Paulino next year, with 7.81 K/9, 3.9 BB/9 and 1.35 HR/9.
The two have experienced some health problems. Norris was shut down a little early last year with right shoulder fatigue, and he missed some time in 2008 with a right elbow strain. Paulino missed nearly the entire 2008 season with a pinched nerve in his right shoulder, and served a DL stint for a right groin strain in 2009.
While neither hurler is a sure thing (is any pitcher?), Norris and Paulino have the punch out potential to be of use in NL-only leagues.
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