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Two youngsters to compete for rotation

Two youngsters to compete for rotation

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HOUSTON -- Several pitchers will begin Spring Training with hopes of nabbing a spot in the starting rotation, including two whose names are familiar to Astros fans but whose bodies of work are still relatively unknown.

Felipe Paulino and Fernando Nieve, once considered two of the organization's most promising arms, have had extensive injury histories that so far have thwarted their ascension to the big leagues. They'll report to Spring Training this year seemingly healthy, but they're also on the hot seat, as the organization waits to see if this is the year these two finally contribute.

"It's high noon for both of them," general manager Ed Wade said.

Nieve may feel more of a sense of urgency, since he is out of options -- meaning that he either has to make the team out of Spring Training or prepare to go elsewhere, possibly to the Minor Leagues, should he clear waivers.

Manager Cecil Cooper is in the process of determining who will audition for starting jobs and who will be relegated to the 'pen, but as of late last week, he was leaning toward giving both Nieve and Paulino a chance to start.

"That's where our biggest need is right now," Cooper said. "You can always revert back to putting a guy back in the bullpen."

Cooper described Nieve as being "at a crossroads" because of his contract status, and expressed his hope that the right-hander will have a good enough spring to merit making the 25-man roster when camp breaks on April 2.

"He's going to have to step up and show something in the spring," Cooper said. "Right now, I'm thinking I'll hand him the ball to see if he can become a starting pitcher. That's probably where he fits right now, especially with our bullpen being as solid as it is."

After undergoing Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery in 2007, Nieve missed most of Spring Training last year while nursing a sore hamstring. This year, however, he's expected to be fully healthy when he reports to Kissimmee, Fla., on Feb. 13.

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Nieve pitched out of the bullpen as a closer in the Venezuelan Winter League this offseason, converting seven of nine saves while posting a 5.02 ERA over 13 games. He allowed eight earned runs over 14 1/3 innings, walking one and striking out 16.

Nieve is on Venezuela's provisional roster for the World Baseball Classic and should he make the team, he could be away from Kissimmee for up to three weeks. That theoretically would not bode well for his chances to break camp with the Astros, as he would be missing out on competition with his own teammates for the few spots available.

Paulino was expected to be a serious contender for a starting spot last spring before he was sidelined with a pinched nerve in his shoulder. His recovery time was first estimated at one month, then three months, then four, and ultimately, he was sidelined the entire season.

Paulino pitched well during Instructional League but did not participate in winter ball as he planned. The Astros advised the right-hander to pitch solely out of the bullpen, but when his team wanted to use him as a starter, the Astros said no, and Paulino's team decided to not use him at all.

The extra rest may prove beneficial for the Astros, who are tentatively counting on Roy Oswalt, Mike Hampton, Brandon Backe, Wandy Rodriguez and Brian Moehler to fill out their rotation. They'd be perfectly content, however, if one or more of their young pitchers pitched well enough during Spring Training to merit a starting job.

Paulino, tabbed as a possible surprise starter a year ago, may have that same opportunity in '09, if he stays healthy.

"Last year was a lost season for him," Wade said. "We're hoping he sees the opportunity he has here and takes advantage of it."

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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