Fulchino carves niche as reliever

Fulchino carves niche as reliever

HOUSTON -- Jeff Fulchino had appeared in only 13 Major League games before taking the ball 61 times for the Astros last season, leading all Houston relievers in wins, innings pitched and strikeouts in the process.

For much of his career prior to last season, Fulchino bounced around the Minor Leagues as primarily a starting pitcher before the Astros made him a full-time reliever in 2009. And even though Houston acquired Matt Lindstrom and Brandon Lyon to replace Jose Valverde and LaTroy Hawkins at the back end of the bullpen, Fulchino should play a big role in '10.

"I think everybody has a niche," Fulchino said. "For whatever reason, you might be better at one thing than you are at another. This was my first full year as a reliever, but I've been more successful. You can't argue with that. For whatever reason, it's worked out that way."

Fulchino, 30, spent most of April going back and forth between Triple-A Round Rock and Houston while the Astros' bullpen suffered a series of injuries. He was recalled for the final time May 14 and started turning heads.

He went 6-4 with a 3.40 ERA in 82 innings and was named the team's Rookie of the Year by the Houston Chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. Fulchino will be honored at the Houston Baseball Dinner in January. Not too bad for a guy who had started 155 of 184 games in eight seasons in the Minor Leagues.

"For me, it's extremely gratifying," he said. "It's gratifying from the point that I was able to be up there the whole season, had a good season and continued."

The Astros acquired Fulchino on waivers from the Kansas City Royals on Dec. 8, 2008. It wasn't an acquisition that made headlines at the time, but Fulchino wound up serving in several different roles in the bullpen as injuries took down relievers Geoff Geary, Hawkins, Valverde and Doug Brocail.

"It's always important to pay attention to every opportunity you have to improve the club," Astros general manager Ed Wade said. "I told Geoff at the end of the season, he was the second most valuable pitcher we had last year, behind Wandy [Rodriguez]. The fact he came up here and pitched as often as he did was huge.

"He covered games early, late innings, multiple innings. He came in different situations and got people out. I'm glad we got him, and the fact he came over on a waiver claim where we didn't have to give up a player in return was certainly a plus. I don't see any reason to believe Jeff isn't going to be as effective next year."

Fulchino was 45-49 in his Minor League career, which began as a starter in the Florida Marlins organization. He spent six years with the Marlins and reached the Majors briefly in 2006, before the Royals signed him as a Minor League free agent prior to the 2008 season.

"You know you're going to be out there for a short period of time and you can let it rip," Fulchino said of relieving. "That's the way I approach it. Maybe other guys are different, but for me, that's the way I went about it."

Astros scouts that were familiar with Fulchino profiled him as a reliever, and the club had that role in mind when they claimed him. Alberto Arias, another waiver claim, emerged for Houston last year, too. The Astros also got key innings from Wesley Wright, a Rule 5 Draft acquisition, and Tim Byrdak, who had been released a year earlier.

Wade said that's proof that teams need to look under every rock for help.

"You've got to pay attention to these types of opportunities when they present themselves, and sometimes they work and sometimes they don't work as well," he said. "This one worked out pretty well."

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