Who Creates Space For Brad Lincoln?

Lincoln is on a hot streak, but how do the Pirates fit him in the rotation?

Remember back in the off-season when the Pittsburgh Pirates were starved for pitching help?  At one point in time, people were calling for the Pirates to add Armando Galarraga to the rotation, thinking he’d be an obvious upgrade.  Galarraga was recently waived, which means the Pirates could have a chance to claim him.  However, at this point, it would be impossible for Galarraga to crack the rotation.

The rotation currently has combined for a 4.14 ERA, not counting today’s start by James McDonald, and counting Ross Ohlendorf’s two starts early in the year.  That’s a huge turnaround from last year.  In fact, by this time last year, the Pirates had already used eight different players as starters.  This year they’ve only used six, and the only reason it’s been six is because of Ohlendorf’s injury.

That’s obviously a good thing.  At the same time, it does provide an issue that we haven’t seen in Pittsburgh lately.  The Pirates have a pitching prospect looking good in AAA, and the Pirates don’t have space for him on the major league roster.  In previous years, the Pirates have been starved for prospects at any position.  When a guy like Lincoln looked ready, the countdown began to when he’d see a call up.  But what do you do with Lincoln this year, with the rotation performing so well?

Lincoln is currently on a hot streak, with a 1.80 ERA in his last four starts, with a 23:6 K/BB ratio in 25 innings over that time span.  That includes seven shutout innings last night in which Lincoln allowed four hits, one walk, and struck out seven.  The big issue with Lincoln is that his secondary pitches haven’t been strong in the past.  Current reports say that his change-up is looking much better this time around, to the point that it could be passable in the majors.  But who do you replace to give Lincoln a shot?

You definitely don’t replace Charlie Morton, who has been a pleasant surprise this year.  Morton has a 2.62 ERA in his first eight starts.  Last year after eight starts, Morton had a 9.68 ERA, and was two starts away from being sent down to AAA for three months.  Now we’re hearing whispers about how he could be a top of the rotation guy for the Pirates.

Kevin Correia was signed over the off-season, and is pretty much performing up to expectations, with a 3.97 ERA in 56.2 innings.  Correia has another year on the deal he signed over the off-season, putting him under control through the 2012 season.

Paul Maholm has been living up to his potential this year, with a 3.67 ERA in 56.1 innings.  The advanced numbers on Morton and Correia suggest they’re due for a bit of a regression, although Maholm’s advanced numbers suggest that his current numbers are legit, mostly because Maholm is getting strikeouts, unlike the other two.

James McDonald started off slow, with a 10.13 ERA in his first four starts of the year.  Since then, McDonald has settled down, posting a 2.51 ERA over 28.2 innings in his last five starts, including 6.2 innings of one run ball today.  McDonald was injured coming out of Spring Training, so it’s possible that his slow start to the year was due to being behind.

Every one of those starters are performing up to expectations.  McDonald and Morton have several years of control remaining.  Correia has a year beyond the 2011 season, while Maholm has an option year in 2012, which is expensive, but definitely worth the price if he continues this success.  The Pirates also have Ross Ohlendorf eventually returning, and even though he’s struggled this year, you have to give him a shot, considering his success the last two seasons.

So where does Lincoln fit in?  Ohlendorf eventually will return (although he hasn’t started his rehab work yet, meaning he’s at least a month away).  You could trade Maholm to make room for Lincoln, although that’s risky, since there are no guarantees that Lincoln will have success this time around in the majors.

Normally I want a prospect getting the call, only if he has a chance to stick in the majors for good.  Lincoln’s situation is no exception.  However, the fact that Ohlendorf will be out until at least mid-June provides a good opportunity.  The Pirates could call Lincoln up, bumping Jeff Karstens from the rotation, and giving them about a month to evaluate Lincoln.  If Lincoln looks like he belongs, that’s when you could make a trade, sending Maholm out to try and fill some other needs on the team.  If Lincoln struggles, you just send him back to AAA when Ohlendorf is ready to return (or give Justin Wilson or Rudy Owens a shot).

The downside to this is that you bump Jeff Karstens from the rotation.  Karstens currently has a 4.26 ERA in 31.2 innings as a starter, over six starts.  He has basically been doing what we would have hoped for out of Ohlendorf.  However, Karstens is having success because the Pirates are using him correctly.  He’s the perfect guy to have in the bullpen.  He’s basically a utility pitcher.  He can provide multiple innings, he can pitch one inning outings, and if needed, he can start.

But Karstens isn’t a starter.  That’s obvious by his numbers after 75 pitches.  You don’t even have to look at the numbers.  Just check Twitter when he reaches the fifth or sixth inning.  Inevitably, you’ll see a question raised on when you remove him, regardless of the position.  It’s almost like gambling in Vegas.  You know the house is eventually going to get the money if you play long enough.  The question is, when you do take the chips and run.

Losing Karstens as a starter wouldn’t be a bad thing if it means giving a shot to a guy who could potentially be in the rotation for the long term.  Considering that only two of the pitchers having success in this years rotation are under control beyond 2012, I’d say it’s important to get some young pitchers in the rotation.  This is also a perfect atmosphere for a young pitcher, as they won’t be expected to come up and carry the team.  The rest of the rotation is pitching great, which puts less pressure on a guy like Lincoln to come up and be the “ace”.

Of course, moving Karstens to the bullpen creates a roster crunch there, especially with Evan Meek returning soon and everyone pitching well, although that’s a topic for another time.

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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