Charlie Morton and Brad Lincoln came into 2010 as high-upside starters close to making an impact in Pittsburgh. Instead, they put up a combined 3-16 record, with both of their ERAs above 6.50. In a season of disappointments, these two were among the biggest. What happened, and is there any hope for these two in the future? I'll profile each of these cases (starting with Lincoln), and predict whether they will have success in the future.
Lincoln was the Bucs' fourth overall pick in the 2006 draft out of the University of Houston . He was seen as a decent pick at the time, although Tim Lincecum was Baseball America's #1 draft prospect. At the time, both Lincoln and Lincecum threw in the mid-90s with a plus curveball. The advantage for Lincecum was a much more developed change, and a slightly better fastball/curve. The disadvantage for him was concerns about his delivery, both for command and injury concerns.
The Pirates hoped Lincoln would reach the majors quickly, but unfortunately, he needed Tommy John surgery in 2007 spring training. That basically killed two years of development time. He was on the shelf for all of 2007, and spent 2008 getting his arm back to full strength. I wonder how much further he'd have developed by now if not for Tommy John.
2009 was a breakout season for Lincoln, as he finally charged through Double-A before meeting resistance in Triple-A. He had a combined 3.37 ERA, with 7.1 strikeouts per nine innings, and 1.8 walks per nine innings. Finally, he was on track to make the majors after a repeat of Triple-A.
His first two months in 2010 were uneven, with a 4.76 ERA in April, with 18 Ks in 28 innings. May was a large improvement, though, as he surged to a 2.38 ERA with 31 Ks in 34 innings. He looked ready for the majors.
Lincoln's first five starts were steady. Through the end of June, he had a 4.65 ERA. The 14 strikeouts in 31 innings were a slight red flag, although his FIP was 4.27, and he was able to limit walks and home runs.
Unfortunately, things spiraled out of control in July, as he posted a 9.61 ERA in four starts. The July FIP was 7.96, meaning he was completely over-matched. The strikeouts ran even lower, while he gave up seven home runs in just the four starts. To be fair, he did face the Pirate-killing Brewers twice in four games. But the other two teams he faced (the Astros and Padres) are not hitting powerhouses. Overall, this big-league trial showed that he needs more development.
What does Lincoln need to do to be successful? The most important thing he needs to do is throw his curveball at the ends of the strike zone. If he can't locate his biggest weapon, hitters will sit on the fastball and loft a lot of fly balls and home runs. Also, he needs to show the third offering more frequently, whether it be a slider or change. He has a close-to-average straight change, but he never uses it.
Overall, I'm confident that Lincoln could be a solid starter in 2011. Developmentally, he was between a 23- and 24-year-old in 2010, due to time missed and catch-up time from TJ. He has the prospect pedigree, and he has the stuff to go along with it. He rated higher than Jose Tabata, according to league scouts, on the Baseball America International League Top 20 Prospects this year.
The lack of strikeouts so far at the major league level is the largest concern, but nine starts just isn't enough sample size for me to write him off. Just the last four starts were disasters, and even Roy Halladay had a tough 67 innings in 2000. Once Lincoln gets 200 innings under his belt, we'll have a better idea of what he will add to the team.
Despite the rough patches in 2010, Lincoln is one of the best candidates for a major-league bounce-back in 2011. He won't live up to his draft slot, but can still be a competitive fourth starter.