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03/04/09 5:00 PM EST

Palmisano given chance to make team

Rule 5 pick in stiff competition to become Astros' backup catcher

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Glossed over by some and pored over by others, baseball's annual Rule 5 Draft was the final event of last December's Winter Meetings in Las Vegas, a chance for teams to scoop up some of the game's undervalued, underused or underappreciated Minor Leaguers.

Among them was catcher Lou Palmisano, tracking the proceedings with interest. Unprotected by the Brewers heading into the Draft, Palmisano knew that he might draw the attention of a team or two. And rather than be daunted by the prospect of leaving the only professional organization he had ever known, Palmisano was rooting for the uncertainty of it.

"Please, some team pick me up," he recalled thinking.

And some team did.

The Orioles selected him, to be precise, then shipped him to the Astros. And Houston quickly placed Palmisano into a catching competition that already included Humberto Quintero and J.R. Towles, both of whom are fighting for time before the team's heir apparent behind the plate, Jason Castro, arrives in the big leagues. Quintero is the presumed starter at this point -- though such presumptions have been wrong before -- leaving one roster spot still open for the taking.

"And to this point, he's looked real good," manager Cecil Cooper said of Palmisano. "He doesn't seem like he's overwhelmed."

And why should he? A career .277 hitter over six Minor League seasons, Palmisano played only 27 games last season due to left knee surgery, then responded by hitting over .400 in the Arizona Fall League. It's that offensive skill set that could separate Palmisano from his competitors this spring, despite the fact that he's always been known more as a defender -- he was named the top defensive catcher in the Brewers organization in each of the past three seasons.

"My strength is calling a game, handling pitchers," Palmisano said. "I think the more you catch, you get used to calling a game. Right now, I'm starting from scratch. You've got to learn your guys. I'm trying to get to know the majority of them here, and that will make it easier."

His natural ability to do so works in his favor, along with the simple fact that he's a Rule 5 Draft pick. By stipulations of the Draft, if a player does not remain on his new big league team for the entire season, he must be offered back to his original club. Which means that if the Astros have designs on developing the 26-year-old Palmisano over multiple seasons, they'll need to keep him on their roster for the entirety of this one.

"If I was a Rule 5 guy here right now, I'd be just like, 'Man, I'm giddy,'" Cooper said. "All I'd have to do is show something."

"To this point, he's looked real good. He doesn't seem like he's overwhelmed."
-- Manager Cecil Cooper, on Lou Palmisano

Palmisano knows that. And the Astros know it, too.

Cooper should know. A product of the Red Sox organization, he was selected by the Cardinals in the 1970 Rule 5 Draft. And after reporting to big league camp, he first met Jose Cruz -- a rookie with the Cards that season, later a star for the Astros and now Cooper's first-base coach.

At the end of Spring Training, the Cardinals, unwilling to spend a roster spot on him, returned Cooper to Boston, where he began the career that saw him compile 2,192 hits and 241 home runs. But he recalled that experience last year while evaluating Wesley Wright, the lefty reliever whom the Astros selected in the 2007 Rule 5 Draft. And he's keeping it in mind again this spring as he evaluates Palmisano and Gilbert De La Vara, another Rule 5 pick.

De La Vara fired two shutout innings against Team Venezuela in Wednesday's exhibition game, aiding his chances of making the club. And Palmisano worked an eight-pitch walk in his lone at-bat as a pinch-hitter -- certainly a quick way to land in a manager's good graces.

Palmisano will next catch half of Thursday's exhibition game against Team Panama, in a system Cooper has established to give all his catching candidates a fair shake at the job.

"He's going to catch a lot," Cooper said. "We're trying to get him on a schedule where every two days he gets in there, so that we can get a chance to continue to watch him and evaluate him."

And so Palmisano continues to work in Kissimmee, wondering whether or not he'll still be with the Astros when camp breaks in four weeks. If so, he'll have plenty of opportunities for playing time behind -- or in front of -- Quintero, who is by no means entrenched as the starting catcher. And if not, he'll have to figure out some other way to crack the big leagues for good.

"Hopefully, you make some friends," Palmisano said. "And if you don't end up playing with them?"

He paused, considering his future.

"Who knows?" he said.

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