Paul Maholm's Success Means Pirates Need To See Brad Lincoln Now

At the beginning of the season, I would have put the odds of Paul Maholm opening the 2012 season as a member of the Pirates' starting rotation at 5-10 percent. There were a variety of reasons:

  • HIs performance in 2010 was mediocre. In fairness, the Pirates' defense was bad and that certainly hurt him as a pitch-to-contact lefty. Nonetheless, he had a WHIP of 1.565 and a K/9 rate of 5.0, the lowest in his major league career. His OPS against was .812. Not encouraging signs.
  • If Maholm pitched well in 2011, he would be a moderately attractive trade candidate at the deadline and the Pirates could likely get an average, or better, prospect back in return.
  • His $9.75 million option for 2012 wouldn't be something the Pirates would consider with all the young pitching making its way up through the organization.

Well, things have started to change. I still don't think the odds are 50 percent that Maholm, who will turn 29 this June, will come back back next year, but they are certainly higher than they were April 1. Maholm has made 10 starts so far this year and has pitched some of the best baseball of his career. His WHIP over 61.2 innings is 1.297. His K/9 rate is 6.4, the highest of his career. His OPS against is .662. (His BAbip is .279, which is well below his career norms, and he may be due for a regression back toward .300.) His 1-7 won-loss record is irrelevant to the conversation, as the Pirates have scored 13 runs while he has been on the mound during his ten starts.

All of a sudden, it isn't out of the question for the Pirates to keep Maholm around next year. $9.75 million is not great value for Maholm-type performance, but it isn't outrageous either. Also, Maholm's durability is a huge asset. He has made at least 29 starts every year since 2006. The Pirates are going to have to make their first decision with regard to Maholm at the trade deadline. If they do nothing there, they'll have to make another at the end of the season.

If the front office wants to make as informed a decision as possible, they need to bring Brad Lincoln up now and put him in the rotation. I realize Jeff Karstens has been very good since taking over for Ross Ohlendorf. But Karstens, who turns 29 in September, is a known commodity. The big negative is that he is unlikely to go more than six innings as a starter because he gets hit hard after about 75 pitches. In his seven starts so far, he has gone 6.2 innings once and 6.0 twice. In his three road starts he has gone 4.1, 4.0 and 5.0 innings. While Karstens' strikeout rate is a surprisingly-good 6.9 he also has a propensity to give up the long ball.

This is not a knock on Karstens. He has done everything asked of him. Rather, it's time to find out what the Pirates have in Lincoln. In his last four starts (not including tonight) at Indy, he has gone 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA and 23 strikeouts and six walks in 25 innings. Word is that he is throwing his secondary pitches (curve, change-up) for strikes, improving on his biggest weakness both last year and earlier this season. (See MarkinDallas' FanPost.)

Lincoln truns 26 on Wednesday. His ceiling is much higher than Jeff Karstens. If Lincoln comes up and is good, the team can probably feel pretty comfortable about dealing Maholm at the trade deadline if it gets an offer it likes. With minor-leaguers Rudy Owens and Justin Wilson performing decently but not spectacularly, and with Bryan Morris being hurt, it is less clear that any one of them can be guaranteed a spot in the 2012 rotation. Three spots are likely to be held by Kevin Correia, Charlie Morton and James McDonald, with all the appropriate caveats. If Lincoln shows he can be a fourth guy in that group, it gives the Pirates a great deal of flexibility.

But to get that flexibility they need to call Lincoln up on June 1 and give him six to eight starts and see if he can do the job. Karstens can slide back into the long-man, swing-man role in the 'pen and the bullpen becomes that much more effective. (This probably means Jose Ascanio would get DFA'd, which bothers me, but I'd still make the move.)

You can't block Lincoln here. If he comes up and gets bombed for five straight starts, send him down and take another look in September. But, by moving now, the team will have much more information on how it should handle the Paul Maholm situation at the trade deadline, and it will get to see if Lincoln is a real candidate for one of the open spots in the 2012 rotation. And, no, I don't see the move impacting the team's performance this year in any way. I don't think they have any less of a chance to win with Lincoln than Karstens.

This type of problem hasn't confronted the Pirates in recent years. A player performing well at the minor-league level hasn't been blocked by anyone in the majors. Neal Huntington said on his radio show Sunday that Lincoln was pitching very well, but there wasn't a spot in the rotation for him. There should be. We all know the pitcher Karstens is. We need to see what kind of pitcher Brad Lincoln is.

UPDATE: Lincoln had seven strikeouts and two walks while allowing two runs in six innings tonight.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of the managing editor (Charlie) or SB Nation. FanPosts are written by Bucs Dugout readers.

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