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02/15/09 5:19 PM EST

Nieve hopes to crack Astros' rotation

Youngster out of options, will make one more push this spring

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Fernando Nieve has never begun a Spring Training season with a guaranteed spot on the Opening Day roster, so to ask him now if he feels any pressure might not be the most logical line of questioning.

Still, Nieve has his work cut out for him. He is out of options on his contract, so in some ways, this year is much different than the past. He'll need to make the team out of Spring Training or be exposed to waivers, at which time one of two things can happen. He'll either be claimed by another team and start the season on that big league roster, or he'll clear waivers and go to Triple-A.

That's a lot to think about in the early stages of his seven-week pursuit toward what he hopes will result in a Major League job. Though the clock is ticking, Nieve insists his focus is where it needs to be.

"My mind is clear," he said. "I'm trying not to worry about it. I have a chance."

He has a chance because he's healthy. That hasn't always been the case in the last couple of years, beginning with the Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery that kept him out of most of the 2007 season. He was ready to compete for a job during Spring Training last year, but a sore leg, likely the result of a weakened calf related to the Tommy John surgery, cut short his spring, and with time running out, eventually eliminated him from serious contention for a big league job.

This year, at 26 years old and in his 10th professional season, Nieve is simply happy to be where he is: among a slew of pitchers vying for precious few Major League jobs.

"I'm happy, because I'm healthy," he said. "I'll just have to show them what I can do when I get on the field."

During his stint in winter ball in his native Venezuela, Nieve was under the impression he would be a bullpen candidate when he joined the Astros in Kissimmee for Spring Training. He closed games in winter ball, logging seven saves over 13 games with one walk and 16 strikeouts. He allowed eight earned runs over 14 1/3 innings.

When he finished, he received a call from manager Cecil Cooper.

"He told me the best shot I have is in the rotation," Nieve said. "So, I'll work as a starter now."

Cooper's decision was based on need. The bullpen is set, but the rotation could use some help. Nieve will be one of six pitchers competing for what likely amounts to one rotation spot. He's not the favorite among a group consisting of Brandon Backe, Jose Capellan, Russ Ortiz, Clay Hensley and Felipe Paulino, but with a good spring showing, he may give the Astros no choice but to hang on to him.

"Where is his opportunity?" Cooper said. "You can always move a guy from the rotation to the bullpen. This [the rotation] is where his chance is."

Nieve has come close in the past but has often been one of the final players trimmed from the roster hours before Opening Day. One of his better chances arrived in 2007, when his battle for the fifth starter job went down to the wire, right through his final start of the season. Nieve started the last Grapefruit League against the Tigers, allowed three runs over four innings, and a couple of days later, he was ticketed for Triple-A Round Rock. The elbow injury popped up in April of that year.

Nieve has spent parts of two seasons -- 2006 and '08 -- in the big leagues, but it's a small sampling. He appeared in 40 games and made 11 starts in 2006, and in '08, he was a September callup, making 11 relief appearances.

Nieve is still waiting for his first chance to put in a full season in the big leagues, and the Astros are waiting, as well. Could this be the year?

"That's why [general manager] Ed [Wade] keeps hollering that it's high noon," Cooper said. "It is high noon. He's got a great arm. He usually pitches down in the strike zone really well and he has a good slider when he throws it for strikes. He hasn't been that consistent with it, but we're hoping that's what happens this spring."

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