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02/23/10 6:00 PM ET

Abad emerging as sleeper prospect

Lefty could bring outstanding control to Astros rotation

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- In every camp, there's always a slate of invitees -- especially on the pitching side -- who have no shot at making the Opening Day roster. Fernando Abad, a 24-year-old left-hander, currently falls in that category.

But you might want to keep an eye on him.

Abad has spent pretty much his entire three-year Minor League career as a reliever, but late in the 2009 season, he was converted back into a starter. And though he's projected to begin the 2010 campaign with Double-A Corpus Christi, he could be a member of the Astros' rotation soon enough -- maybe even at some point during the upcoming season.

"He's really getting close," assistant general manager Ricky Bennett said. "I think one thing that he does well is throw strikes. If you look throughout the course of his career, he's always shown the ability to throw strikes."

Bennett wasn't kidding.

In his Minor League career, Abad has averaged just 1.5 walks per nine innings. And this past season, he walked just 11 and struck out 92 in 96 2/3 frames.

The Dominican's fastball doesn't reach the 90-mph range very frequently, and Bennett admitted that Abad's curveball needs work. But it's his deception and his three-pitch arsenal -- one that also includes a solid changeup -- that makes him incredibly efficient and effective.

"[His stuff is] not overpowering, but it's in the strike zone, it's deceptive, and he's got some movement on his two-seamer, so all those things you look at as a left-hander," Bennett said. "And when you compete and you throw the ball over the plate, you make the hitters put the ball in play. And that's what he does."

Abad was placed on the 40-man roster and protected by the Astros at the start of the offseason.

Originally signed as a 16-year-old, Abad is 12-18 with a 3.82 ERA and 10 saves in 108 games (seven starts) in the Minor Leagues. To start the '09 season, he posted a 4.14 ERA in 41 relief appearances in high A, but that was while pitching his home games at a very hitter-friendly ballpark in Lancaster, Calif.

He was then returned to the rotation at Double-A Corpus Christi, posting a 3.21 ERA in three starts. Then, while pitching in winter ball for the Dominican Republic, he went 3-1 with a 3.42 ERA in 10 starts, though he also walked an uncharacteristic 15 batters in 47 1/3 innings.

"You look at the numbers that he puts together, the command that he has really stands out," Astros manager Brad Mills said. "And any time you can get a left-handed pitcher with the command he has, that's a nice thing to see."

Abad loves being at Spring Training with the big leaguers, but he also realizes his dream of being a Major League pitcher will have to wait.

Speaking in Spanish on Tuesday, Abad said "I have a clear head. I know there are other veterans ahead of me."

But Abad also believes he can thrive at the big league level if given the chance.

"They know I throw strikes and I'll get outs anywhere," Abad said. "So, it's in their hands to see when I pitch in the big leagues. I'm just going to keep showing what I can do."

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