Moving Paulino to the pen is the wrong move

added 5/4/2009 by Scott Barzilla

I wrote about this in my last column, so now it is time to look at the decision the Astros made. If anyone doesn't know, the club officially moved Felipe Paulino to the bullpen in favor of Brian Moehler. For his part, Moehler gave up eight runs in his last rehab start for the Corpus Christi Hooks. Sure, they'll tell you he retired the last ten batters. That's great.

I don't even know where to begin on why this move is a bad idea, but I suppose I'll start with the obvious. Felipe Paulino has been the second best starter on the team so far. That's right, even better than Roy Oswalt. Even if you throw out Oswalt's one bad outing in St. Louis you are still talking about the third best starter on the team. Funny, but shouldn't the third best starter be actually starting? I guess I'm funny that way.

To make matters worse, this is a management group that frequently calls this a contending team. On a contending team you damn the torpedoes and play your best players. Let's not mention the fact that Paulino starting every fifth day is what is best for his future. That's just another point on down the line. Right now, starting Paulino is what is best for the Astros in 2009. Until he proves otherwise, he is better than Brian Moehler even if Moehler is healthy.

Health is the second point, but shouldn't take a backseat to performance. The Astros have done this twice before in fairly recent memory with prospects like Paulino. The most recent was Fernando Nieve. In 2006, he was yo-yoed between the rotation and bullpen. The result? He spent much of the next two seasons on the shelf with arm problems. Sure, we can't prove that the change back and forth caused the injury, but they sure didn't help. Paulino is already coming in with a history of arm problems. Why chance it?

The second case is one that was probably more egregious. Scott Elarton looked like he would be Roy Oswalt before he was Roy Oswalt. Elarton came up in 1998 and had a good showing out of the bullpen. He had two starts with good success. In 1999, the club admitted that he was likely the team's third best starter behind Jose Lima and Mike Hampton. At the very least, he was considerably better than Sean Bergman and Chris Holt. Instead, he yo-yoed between the rotation and bullpen. He turned in a good year, but arm troubles would claim him by 2001.

To add insult to injury, the Blue Jays offered the Astros Roger Clemens for Derek Bell and Elarton before the 1999 season. Those that have followed the club know the history of that situation, but in addition to the financial concerns, the club feared parting with Elarton. If only they had known then what they know now. At any rate, Paulino has had success as a starter, so he should continue as a starter. Someone that has had arm problems in the past can be managed easier in the rotation. He works on a regulated schedule and it is easier to regulate his work load. Of course, this pushes us close to the territory of admitting that 2009 is more about preparing for the future than competing in the present.

I suppose the last reason is more of a philosophical one. If the Astros are guilty of anything in this case it is surrendering to the almighty dollar. Brian Moehler makes more than Paulino, so he should have the job. Someone, it is more about saving face than it is about winning games. They paid Moehler more than just about any other team would, so they feel pressure to justify the signing. This is rarely ever the best course of action to take when trying to win a pennant.

Baseball players are professionals and can't be compared completely to kids, but we are talking about human nature. It reminds of when the coach's son or daughter got to play more than they should. Usually, we became resentful or apathetic because it was clear that winning wasn't the main objective. It is no more pointed than for the player himself. Paulino deserved a vote of confidence, but instead got the "I know his ERA looks like a Texans game score and I know he just got lit up in AA, but we think he is better than you and your sub three ERA."

It's time for the Astros to get off the fence. Are you really pushing yourself as a contender or are you trying to get through until the future gets here? If it's the first then you have to play the players that are playing the best. If that means sending Jason Smith to the unemployment line so be it. If it means J.R. Towles stays up for Humberto Quintero so be it. If it means Jeff Keppinger plays a lot more than so be it. Finally, if it means Brian Moehler becomes the mop up guy again then so be it.

Decisions like this don't slip past the fans or the other players. They know what the score is. It is more important to protect the mediocre veteran making 1.5 million dollars than it is put the best player on the mound. We can only hope that Paulino is not haunted by the ghosts of Nieve and Elarton's pasts. In case anyone hasn't noticed, this team doesn't have a lot of good live arms. The ones they do have need to be cherished and not sent to the bench in favor of a guy that hasn't been even average in his career.