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02/08/11 4:43 PM ET

Abad's hot winter prompts Astros to mull options

Prospective lefty relief specialist could also win rotation spot

HOUSTON -- Coming off an eye-opening performance in the Dominican Winter League, Astros left-hander Fernando Abad has put himself in position to be one of the most interesting arms to watch in camp when pitchers and catchers hit the field next week.

Abad, who made his Major League debut last year and had a 2.84 ERA in 19 innings in relief, is one of the favorites to be the left-handed specialist in the bullpen, but his success as a starter this winter has the Astros believing he can win a rotation spot as well.

"It's a nice position to be in at this point, to have a guy who has a chance to come in and compete and fill a number of different roles," Astros general manager Ed Wade said.

Abad, 25, went 3-0 with a 2.38 ERA in 10 games (six starts) for Toros El Este in the Dominican Winter League, striking out 37 batters in 34 innings. He started Friday for his native Dominican Republic against Puerto Rico in the Caribbean Series and allowed four hits and one earned run in 4 2/3 innings.

Considering his performance in his debut last year, Abad was going to get every chance to win a bullpen spot. Sergio Escalona, acquired from the Phillies in a swap of Minor Leaguers, and veterans Wesley Wright and Gustavo Chacin will also be in the mix for the lefty specialist spot.

There is much stiffer competition for the final spot in the starting rotation. The Astros took Aneury Rodriguez and Lance Pendleton in the Rule 5 Draft and signed Ryan Rowland-Smith to compete for the rotation. Top prospect Jordan Lyles and veteran Nelson Figueroa will also be in the hunt.

Wade admitted Abad will be a topic of conversation when manager Brad Mills meets with his staff on Monday in Kissimmee, Fla.

"He's had an excellent winter ball," Wade said. "I hate to take potential starters and move them to the bullpen prematurely, but at the same time he really factors into a number of different ways for us. We're going to have to talk about the potential of him being the primary left-hander in our bullpen.

"There's a few moving parts right now, and we need to sit down as a group and get Millsie's input and [pitching coach] Brad Arnsberg's input and try to get him to be in the right position to be successful in the short term or long term."

Julio Linares, a special assistant to Wade, saw Abad pitch in person this winter and raved about him.

"We've had good reports on him from the people who have been down there covering," Wade said. "We're going to have to spend a lot of time talking about Fernando once we get into Spring Training. "

The Astros signed Abad as a non-drafted free agent in 2002, and he's spent eight seasons in the system, including four in the Dominican Summer League. He began his pro career as a starter but has been used mostly in relief since playing domestically. He made his Major League debut last July 28 and appeared in eight of Houston's final 13 games, not allowing a run in six of those outings.

Wade's philosophy is to allow young pitchers every opportunity to forge a career as a starter before moving them to the bullpen, and that certainly appears to be how the Astros are going to handle Abad during Spring Training.

"As we can clearly see, finding quality starters is a really difficult mission," Wade said. "I just think that if there is a potential for somebody to go out there and get the ball every five days and be one of those guys you can count on, you have to give him an opportunity to do that. Time and circumstance will dictate if you have to approach it in a different way."

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