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03/29/09 2:15 PM ET

Lincoln ready to take the next step

Pirates' top pitching prospect to start season at Double-A Altoona

TAMPA, Fla. -- Brad Lincoln's primary goal in 2008 was to stay healthy. Now he's ready to get a little greedier in those expectations.

Of all the recent first-round Draft picks the Pirates have in their system, there's a tendency for Lincoln to be the first forgotten. That has nothing to do with Lincoln no longer being a promising prospect. It has everything to do with his situation since being the No. 4 pick in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft.

Lincoln, a three-year pitcher at the University of Houston, pitched just four games in the Pirates' organization in '06 before a strained left oblique ended his season in early August. He wouldn't even get a chance to pitch in 2007, as reconstructive right elbow surgery ended his season before it started.

Now you know why what could seem like such a modest goal in '08 was such a significant step forward.

"Regardless of the numbers and the stats and the media and the hype, just staying healthy and going out there every fifth day was a big thing for me," Lincoln said recently, after workouts at Minor League camp in Pirate City. "For me, the comfort level came back pretty easily. The stuff might not have been there, but I felt comfortable on the mound.

"Coming back from surgery, there is always that thought in the back of your mind where you wonder if it's going to be the same," he continued. "Is it going to affect the way that I used to pitch? The mental part can be the hardest part to get over."

After splitting time in both Class A levels last season, Lincoln is slated to begin the year in the rotation at Double-A Altoona. After developing his changeup into a weapon last season, Lincoln now has what scouts see as three above-average big league pitches. Coming into 2009, Baseball America listed Lincoln as the organization's best pitching prospect and fourth best overall player in the system.

"He pounded the strike zone last year, and we want to make sure that it's more than just control, that's it's command," said Kyle Stark, Pirates director of player development. "He's made strides with the delivery. He's aggressive. He attacks the zone. He's a strike thrower. And he competes."

Lincoln's control was one of his strong points. In 103 2/3 innings combined at both Class A levels, Lincoln walked just 17. He went 5-4 with a 4.65 ERA in 11 starts for low-A Hickory before being promoted to high-A Lynchburg. There, Lincoln went 1-5 with a 4.75 ERA.

The crispness on Lincoln's breaking ball wasn't present consistently last year, though that's something that Lincoln said he already sees returning this spring. His fastball is back in the low-to-mid-90s range, and some new exercises the Pirates are guiding Lincoln through should help him preserve his arm strength for a full season.

There are mumblings that Lincoln, 23, might not be that far away from the Majors, assuming that he can sustain another healthy season. Stark characterized Lincoln as being "kind of on a quick track" already since the 6-foot-4 right-hander will be starting at Double-A in just his second full professional season.

Double-A, as Stark explains, can in some cases be the last step before the Majors.

"The reality is that if he is in Double-A, he's close," Stark said. "The way we develop players is if the player accomplishes what we want him to accomplish in Double-A, theoretically, he is ready for the big leagues."

Lincoln's track will ultimately be determined by his ability to meet certain benchmarks and most importantly, his health. Knowing that he can't take the latter for granted, Lincoln said he wisely tries to stay away from setting timetables.

"You always want to look forward to getting there as quick as you can," Lincoln said. "For me, it's just going out there and giving my best every day. Whenever that happens to me, I'm going to take full advantage of it."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.