If the 2012 season was starting tomorrow, the Pirates rotation would likely feature James McDonald, Erik Bedard, Charlie Morton, Jeff Karstens, and Kevin Correia in some order. That's an interesting because of the talent that exists in the first three spots, but it's also a paper-thin one. Charlie Morton already has an injury that could cut into the early part of the season and we don't know how it will affect him. Counting on Erik Bedard to throw 200 innings is foolish. McDonald had an up-and-down 2011 season that left us with a lot of questions. Karstens is a serious regression candidate after his breakout year last year, and Correia's likely to be throwing pitches that look like watermelons most of the time. Even if the Pirates go out and add Jeff Francis and bump Correia, there's a depth problem. Heck, there's a bit of a depth problem even if they break open the checkbook and sign Edwin Jackson.
There are, of course, a few internal options that could end up providing depth. Jeff Locke had some success in a handful of Triple-A starts last year before an ugly end to the season with the Pirates. Rudy Owens struggled a bit in Triple-A, but may rebound if the shoulder problem that manifested itself late in the 2011 season was holding him back. Bryan Morris and Justin Wilson may get another shot at starting, though they're both in the bullpen at the present. From this (admittedly early) vantage point, none of these guys seem likely to break camp with the team or to unseat Correia (who's clearly the weak link right now), so instead I want to focus on Brad Lincoln.
After a very difficult stint with the Pirates in 2010, Lincoln at least showed some progress in 2011. He made a spot start for the Pirates in July, joined the bullpen in early August, then made seven starts of varying quality from mid-August through the end of the season. His 4.72 ERA on the year wasn't great, but he nearly halved his homer rate (he gave up nine homers in 52 2/3 innings in 2010 and just four in 47 2/3 in 2011), which was a huge problem for him in his first Pirate stint, and even increased his strikeout rate (4.3 K/9 to 5.5) a bit, though he was still a bit below where he needs to be to be effective there. If you factor in his much-improved groundball rate (37.2% to 51.6% in 2011), you can see that Lincoln's FIP and xFIP weren't bad last year and if you use either of those stats to measure his short season, he was grades out better than James McDonald.
So did Lincoln make a stride forward with the Pirates in 2011? Is it something he can build on, a sign of something to come? Or will his home run problem and low strikeout rate come back to haunt him and keep him from ever being even a mid-rotation big league starter? To try and get an answer to this question, let's start by comparing his Triple-A numbers with his big league numbers. Triple-A goes first.
|AAA (3 seasons)||AAA||20||15||.571||4.28||48||48||267.0||270||139||127||22||55||1||220||17||9||1109||1.217||9.1||0.7||1.9||7.4||4.00|
|162 Game Avg.||5||12||.300||5.74||39||29||171||204||117||109||22||53||7||92||12||2||767||69||1.505||10.8||1.2||2.8||4.8||1.74|
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
When Lincoln first got to Triple-A in 2009, he had some of the same problems he had during his first stint with the Pirates in 2010. He gave up too many home runs and he didn't strike out a ton of hitters. In 2010, he increased his strikeouts at the expense of some control and in 2011, he made strides with the home run problem and had the best K/BB rate of his three partial years with Indianapolis.
That leaves me with some questions. Why did his home run rate go down and his groundball rate go up last year? Was it some work that the Pirates' staff did with him, or was it something else? What's his ceiling in the big leagues in terms of strikeout rate? It has to be higher than 5.5 K/9 for him to be a useful big league pitching, I think. Can he lower his walk rate without serving up meatballs again?
At least some of this can be answered with PitchFX, but some of it is a wider question about Lincoln's ceiling and what makes a useful pitcher in the big leagues. And that's where I'm headed with part 2.