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On Drafting Brad Lincoln

Brad Lincoln's recent injury has inspired some criticism of the Pirates for taking him with the fourth pick of last year's draft. Most notably, Pat wrote the humorous post I linked yesterday, and WTM and Dejan Kovacevic discussed the matter in today's Post-Gazette Q+A.

I'm as sympathetic as anyone to these writers' general point - that because it's extremely risky to draft amateur pitchers, it's better to spend your first-round pick on a hitter when possible, and then stock up on high-upside arms later. As others have pointed out, the current composition of the Pirates' rotation is a data point in favor of this argument - even though Pittsburgh took a pitcher in the first round of every draft between 1998 and 2003, only one member of its current rotation (Paul Maholm) was drafted in the first round. Tom Gorzelanny was taken in the second round, and Zach Duke and Ian Snell were taken much later. Meanwhile, the rest of team's former top picks are either out of the organization (Bobby Bradley, Clint Johnston) or struggling to get out of the high minors (Sean Burnett, John VanBenschoten, Bryan Bullington).

However, the 2006 draft was no ordinary draft, and if the Pirates shouldn't have taken a pitcher in the first round, it's fair to wonder who they should have taken instead. High school hitters Billy Rowell or Travis Snider - taken with the 9th pick by the Orioles and the 14th pick by the Jays, respectively - would have been inspired picks, but at the time, they probably would have been called reaches if the Pirates had taken them. The Reds took college outfielder Drew Stubbs with the 8th pick, but he was at least as risky as any pitcher in the draft. Chris Parmalee, Hank Cogner, and Adrian Cardenas are all good-looking hitting prospects who were taken late in the first round, but few at the time thought any of those guys should have been taken in the top ten.

There just weren't a lot of hitters in last year's draft, so, to my mind, the Pirates were justified in taking a pitcher. If the Pirates had taken a hitter, they would've received a ton of criticism for it, and much of it probably would've been deserved. If third baseman Evan Longoria had still been on the board when the Pirates picked, that would've been a different story, but the Rays took him with the third pick.

In the past couple months, the Pirates have received a lot of criticism for picking Lincoln, and none of it has been fair. In addition to the suggestion that the Pirates should have picked a hitter, Baseball Prospectus repeatedly wrote in its annual that the Pirates should have taken a higher-upside pitcher. But, at the time of the draft, Lincoln was regarded as a high-upside pitcher, and BP's proposed alternatives, Tim Lincecum and Clayton Kershaw, were at least as risky as Lincoln - like Lincoln, Lincecum was small and had been abused by his college coaches, only moreso on both counts. And Kershaw was a high school pitcher.

To my mind, there are only two criticisms of the Lincoln pick that are even remotely fair. The first, and best, is that the Pirates didn't pick Andrew Miller instead. Miller was widely regarded as the top talent in the draft, and the Pirates probably just didn't pick him because his price tag was too high. If you want to criticize the Pirates for that, go right ahead. They deserve it. But keep in mind that Miller is a pitcher.

The second criticism is that the Pirates might not have been as diligent as they should've been in figuring out what was going on with Lincoln's health. It's possible that he was damaged goods even before he was selected. That criticism is entirely speculative, but given the Pirates' spectacular failure to properly evaluate the medical status of their new acquisitions, it's fair to wonder.

Obviously, the Pirates legitimately do deserve blame for most of their long list of recent failures. When something goes wrong, the natural inclination is to assume it's the Pirates fault. To my mind, though, the Pirates don't deserve most of the criticism they're getting here.