Pirates Notebook: Is Lincoln at Risk of Being Replaced in the Rotation?

Jeff Locke is one of four arms in Triple-A that could step in the rotation.

Prior to the game on Sunday afternoon at Progressive Field, Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington said the plan was to keep Brad Lincoln in the rotation until Jeff Karstens returned from the disabled list. That, however, was before Lincoln lasted just 3.1 innings and gave up four runs to the Tribe. After the game, Manager Clint Hurdle didn’t indicate whether the plan was to still stick with Lincoln in the rotation for one more turn, or if they will decide to give that opportunity to one of several young prospects knocking on the door in Triple-A. Lincoln is currently slated to pitch at PNC Park on Saturday against the Detroit Tigers.

“That’s the plan as we sit here,” Huntington said. “Brad obviously had a very good start in Miami. Last start ran out of gas. Two starts ago, ran out of gas. Just hasn’t been stretched out. And that’s the danger of putting a guy in your bullpen is he’s not stretched out. That 65-70 pitch mark becomes a challenge for him. And that’s not Brad’s fault. It’s just the nature of the beast.”

“He’s thrown so well in our bullpen. We wanted to keep him there. Now we’re going to give him an opportunity to step up and make big starts for us. We want him to go at it as if he’s a reliever. And go at if he gets through the first inning, go through the second inning. Get through the third inning, get through the fourth inning. Whatever he can get is a benefit and a bonus for us.”

Over his last three starts, Lincoln has allowed 14 runs on 23 hits over just 11.2 innings — good for an 11.25 ERA. That’s not the Brad Lincoln we saw out of the bullpen in relief looking like a bulldog on the mound shutting down innings and allowing just one earned run over 20.0 frames while punching out 23 batters.

Hurdle said after the outing that he saw some improvements — a spike in his velocity, and improvement on his breaking ball. But he struggled with his command, and at times, Hurdle said, was too easy to see. The right-hander was giving the batters a good view, opening up too early on his front side, which would explain the nine hits that Lincoln gave up over his 3.1 innings before Hurdle called upon his solid bullpen.

So will the club give Lincoln one final start to prove he could be a Major League starter, or will they call upon one of several arms from Triple-A, who are putting up numbers worthy of a promotion?

Left-handed prospects Jeff Locke, Rudy Owens and Justin Wilson have had strong seasons with Triple-A, and Rick VandenHurk has also been raising eyes with Indy.

Locke has posted a 3.27 ERA over 12 starts this season. The lefty prospect was ranked No. 2 in the farm system in strikeouts last season and continues to see an impressive strikeout rate, as he has whiffed 64 batters over 71.2 innings.

“Jeff continues to just give us solid outing after solid outing down there,” Huntington said.

Owens is having a huge bounce back season after struggling in 2011, when he was coming off back-to-back years as the Pirates Minor League Pitcher-of-the-Year. Owens has posted a 2.34 ERA over 13 games so far in 2012 — which is ranked No. 3 in the International League.

“Rudy has really thrown the ball well,” Huntington said. “He’s commanding both halves. He’s using off-speed pitches well.”

Wilson, too, is pitching well for Triple-A. The lefty added an impressive combined no-hitter and one-hitter to his resume this season — both which earned him International League Pitcher-of-the-Week awards. Wilson has a 3.62 ERA over 14 starts.

“Justin shows you the flashes of the stuff,” Huntington said. “The command of the fastball, we’ve talked about it from day one with Justin. You’re going to have to command the fastball, and if he does, he can be a quality Major League starter. But if he doesn’t, he could be a left-handed reliever that comes in and throws hard.”

VandenHurk signed a minor league deal with Pittsburgh on April 11, after electing free agency from the Indians. The right-hander has 181 innings in the big leagues, and has been very sharp with Triple-A. VandenHurk has made six starts where he has just a 1.14 ERA after making some adjustments.

“Rick VandenHurk has showed some signs that he can help us this summer,” Huntington said.”We’d made some adjustments with him. He’s made some good adjustments mechanically and fundamentally and mentally.”

“We feel good really about any four of those guys coming up and making a start for us. And maybe a handful of starts for us if need be. [Lincoln’s] done a nice job for us out of bullpen. He had the one solid start. If we had to look a month down the road, maybe we shift the focus a little bit. But right now, nobody has really lost their opportunity up here.”

“As a young player you don’t want to shuttle them back and forth, but we’d feel comfortable with any of those guys coming up to make a spot start. In a perfect world they’d come up and have the opportunity to stay in the rotation. They are all at a point in time in their careers where they can start for us. Jeff obviously did it for us in September a year ago…We’ve got the comfort level that any of them could come up. Whether it’s pitch out of the bullpen for us, if we needed that length option again, or come up and make a start, or two or three, or 10 if we needed to.”

Locke’s experience in the bigs could give him the edge over the others. The lefty was a September call up last season and had a short three day cup of coffee in the Majors last month. Although Locke didn’t get to pitch, the experience of learning from the staff –Locke mentioned A.J. Burnett as a good influence — could be a deciding factor on who would get the call to step in the rotation first.

“Experience is a wonderful teacher,” Huntington said. “That was the main reason we brought Jeff up last September was to give him a handful of starts, to give him some comfort as what will work up here, what he needs to work on because what he thought would work doesn’t. It does weight in his favor, but there are sometimes it’s just the calendar.”


Meek Sees Improvement with Velocity

Since being demoted to Triple-A, Evan Meek continues to see improvement with his velocity. The right-hander struggled in the Majors this season after seeing a dip on his fastball and allowed nine runs over 10.1 innings.

Since joining the minors, Meek has a 2.35 ERA over 23.0 innings.

“The velocity, the consistency of the velocity, continues to get better,” Huntington said. “We’re seeing that true short power cut, which is a great sign for Evan Meek. That means he is letting the ball go.”

Meek’s fastball has been 93-96 MPH, which is up from the 88-92 MPH range he was in at the start of the year.


Nunez Has Set Back with Ankle

The Pirates selected infielder Gustavo Nunez in the Rule 5 draft this past December, but has yet to leave Bradenton, Florida. When Pittsburgh selected him, they were aware of his ankle injury, but didn’t believe the injury would have taken as long as it has for him to recover. Nunez opened up the season on the 60-day disabled list with a broken ankle.

During the 2011 season, Nunez hit .276 with 13 doubles, seven triples, five home runs, 26 RBI and 18 stolen bases in 96 combined with High-A Lakeland and Double-A Erie.

“It’s taking a lot longer than a lot anyone would have anticipated,” Huntington said. “We took him knowing there was risk. We took him knowing that he was coming off the broken ankle. We expected that he would be ready to go some time in the early part of the season. Anytime you insert screws into a bone, you run the risk of the screws becoming irritated. We had to go in and remove all of the screws. So now, you’ve got to stop the rehab process and let the bone heal. And that’s where Gustavo has been so far behind. He just couldn’t do it anymore. We had to let the bone heal. We’ve done that and he’s just started to get back into some functional running activity. Not base running yet.”

The surgery, Huntington said, was about six weeks ago.

“That’s what’s’ taking so long. He’s worked hard. He’s in good spirits. He’s frustrated but still has a smile on his face. He knows he still has a pretty good opportunity here once we get him healthy.”

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This is what I want to hear about a Major League middle-of-the-rotation starter and former touted prospect’s inning load: “Whatever he can get is a benefit and a bonus for us.”
Which is to say, I think Hurdle is spot on about Lincoln being a great asset out of the bullpen. He hasn’t translated that to starting with any consistency. And if we’re at the point where Lincoln going four or five innings is basically a bonus and not an expectation, what’s the point? Seriously. What’s the point?

John Lease

If Lincoln isn’t in danger, he should be. He finally is having success at the ML level, leave him in the bullpen and try Locke or Owens. The Pirates would benefit having another lefty.

Lee Young

Continually starting Lincoln makes no sense.

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