Saturday, June 30, 2012

Unlikely Extension Candidate

Starting pitcher Brad Lincoln has been a disappointment for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Over the last 2+ seasons, the Bucs have given the, now-27 year old, several shots to grab a spot in the rotation and it just hasn’t worked out. He’s been OK at times, good at others but mediocre far too often. As a starter, Lincoln becomes too much of a one-pitch pitcher. His fastball doesn’t maintain its velocity as well over extended outings and his change has not been very effective against major league hitters so he is often left with hitters just sitting on his curve. For a former #4 draft pick, a player taken ahead of Tim Lincecum and Clayton Kershaw, this…well…sucks. Hear me out, though…

Relief pitcher Brad Lincoln, however, has been filthy. He’s been dominant. There is a very real chance that he might, in fact, be ManBearPig. As a reliever this year, Lincoln has struck out 10.9 batters per 9 innings while walking just 2.6 and his WHIP is 0.83. Opponents are hitting just .157 against him and his GB/FB ratio is 1.41, nearly triple what it is as a starter. His ERA out of the bullpen is 0.38 and he has not allowed a single inherited runner to score this season.

One feather in Neal Huntington’s cap so far during his Pirates tenure is that he has always been able to cobble together successful bullpens using players off the proverbial scrap heap. This includes landing free agent Octavio Dotel (and then swindling the Dodgers at the deadline to get James McDonald) and getting Joel Hanrahan when he was a struggling starter and turning him into “The Hammer.” The truth is that closers are simply overvalued in today’s game and Huntington seems to realize this. For this reason, I’m not holding my breath waiting for the Pirates to sign a closer to a Papelbon-esque $50M deal, and that’s a good thing. I’m also not so sure we’ll see the Bucs keep Hammer through next year when he is likely to make $8M or so which is a ton for a team like the Pirates. The thing is, just because closers are overvalued, doesn’t mean that they don’t have value. For a contending team, having a guy at the back end of that bullpen to simply shut the door is a big deal. You could argue that it would be a bigger deal to have a guy to shut the door in the highest leverage situations and not simply the 9th inning. You’d probably be right, but for the time being, that’s simply not how managers handle things.

This brings me back to Lincoln. While it may be a little premature, you could make a pretty strong case that Lincoln is the guy who is most likely to take over as the closer if and when Joel Hanrahan is dealt. If the Pirates are a little proactive, it’s possible that they could lock down their closer for the next five years at an affordable rate so they don’t have to worry about finding their next diamond in the rough. Since Lincoln has had such limited major league success, the Pirates might be able to sign him to a 5 year, $14M deal similar to the one Matt Moore signed with Tampa after being in the majors for about an hour and a half. Assuming Lincoln works out, which is obviously a risk, this would mean the Pirates could get their closer for half a decade without having to worry about overpaying for the save statistic. Even if he doesn’t quite pan out, this isn’t a franchise crippling deal and the team would still be able to operate normally even under their tight financial restrictions. Sure, there are other guys on the team who are worth of extensions, probably more worthy than Lincoln. I’d love to get McDonald locked down for a few years right about now. This might also be a decent time to try and buy low on Pedro Alvarez who could very well hit 30 home runs this year. You could even make a case for Pine Richland’s own Neil Walker. However, all of those negotiations would probably be tougher and wind up with the Pirates signing a bigger deal. Lincoln, at 27 and under team control for 5+ years simply doesn’t have any leverage. This deal would also offer some financial security for a guy who looked like a potential AAAA pitcher back in March. If I’m the Pirates, I get this deal done now. I’m super cereal…