The Houston Astros acquired right-hander David Paulino and outfielder Danry Vasquez from the Detroit Tigers at the trade deadline in 2013 for a two-month rental of reliever Jose Veras. At the time Vasquez was a rising prospect for the Tigers and the centerpiece of the deal. Paulino was nothing more than a rail-thin project to sweeten the pot.
A lot has changed since then: Paulino has bulked up, his fastball has gained velocity and the breaking ball has taken a step forward developmentally. Across three levels of A-ball this season, the 21-year-old boasts an impressive 72:19 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 67.1 innings. Here are my notes from seeing Paulino in extended spring training this year.
Lightly listed at 6-foot-7 and 215 pounds, Paulino resembles an NBA small forward, thanks to his athletic workhorse frame. He has long limbs, a high waist, strong thick legs, broad shoulders, large hands and large feet. Formerly the owner of a thin wiry frame, Paulino has worked hard to improve his physical profile, adding exceptional muscle definition throughout his upper and lower body. There is minimal projection remaining for added growth as he appears to be physically maxed out. Paulino’s injury history includes Tommy John surgery, performed back in 2013.
Paulino fires the ball from a high 3/4 arm slot, with clean and quick arm action through the release point. He utilizes his tall frame, long levers and high slot to generate steep downward plane, helping yield weak contact and ground balls. Even with the electric velocity, there is minimal effort in Paulino’s delivery. Paulino has made great strides, improving the consistency of repeating his delivery, particularly his landing spot and consistent arm slot and arm speed for each pitch. He holds runners well and typically delivers the ball to the plate in 1.30 to 1.35 seconds, which is big-league average.
Paulino features two-seam and four-seam fastballs. The four-seamer features solid late life, resting comfortably between 95 and 97 mph, occasionally scraping as high as 98. His two-seamer sits 92-94 mph with natural sink when down in the zone. Paulino already flashes plus-plus velocity and appears to have the aptitude, when considering the movement and command, to get the overall pitch grade to 70 as well.
Previously a soft, slow-spinning, loopy offering with inconsistent shape, Paulino’s feel for the breaking ball has vastly improved. Thrown now with conviction and desired velocity, the 77-81 mph breaker features 11/5 shape with tight rotation and late-breaking action. Utilized primarily as put-away pitch buried down in the zone, his ability to regularly control the offering and throw it for strikes is still a work in progress. There’s work to be done, but the breaking ball has taken a huge step forward, developing into a solid-average pitch now with plus potential.
Paulino’s 85-86 mph changeup has downward dive with a little fade at its best; however, it’s a distant third pitch that lacks life and consistency. Paulino keeps his arm slot but fails to maintain arm speed, which occasionally telegraphs the pitch to advanced batters. The change is currently Paulino’s least effective weapon in his repertoire, and its development will likely be a determining factor in his big league role, with relief a likely landing spot if it doesn’t get closer to an average pitch consistently.
Paulino has control, as an aggressive strike thrower that pounds the zone. Like most young prospects, command comes and goes. Regardless, Paulino stays in favorable counts and limits his walks — and he’s also a flamethrower with standout stuff, so painting at the corners likely isn’t a part of his future.
Paulino is a fierce competitor, but he appears calm and even-keeled on the mound regardless of the results. He enjoys the game and routinely voices a strong desire to be a big leaguer. Paulino is highly regarded by his teammates and coaching staff as a hard worker and a great teammate. He responds well to constructive criticism and has shown the aptitude to overcome injury and polish his craft. There are no off-the-field issues or potential red flags.
Paulino is quickly emerging as an absolute steal for the Astros. The progress of his fastball and curveball the past nine months is particularly encouraging, leaving me with reason to believe that the change can also take a step forward. Should the changeup become an average pitch, I’d project Paulino as a 3/4 starter. However, I think his big-league future is in the bullpen, where his stuff could yield a potential high-leverage reliever.
Paulino’s inability to stay on the field naturally creates some added risk. Despite coming stateside in 2012, injuries including Tommy John surgery have limited Paulino to just 106.1 total innings. Staying healthy and logging innings will be imperative for his development. As far as a timeline is concerned, Paulino is probably a couple years away from potentially contributing at the big-league level. In Paulino, I see a big leaguer with slightly above average potential: a nice find when you consider the fact that Veras hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2014.
James Chipman is a prospect writer for FanGraphs, The Detroit News and Scout.com. A resident of Orlando, FL, he frequently views prospects in the Florida State League, Gulf Coast League as well as Grapefruit League and Extended Spring Training. He can be followed on Twitter: @J__Chipman.