CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Brad Lincoln spent the first week of December hunting with friends some 90 minutes north of Pittsburgh, the city where he once imagined a fruitful major-league career as a starting pitcher. Those dreams were dashed in 2012 with a trade to Toronto, and now Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos was on the phone.
"When you get a call from your GM at midnight on a Tuesday in the offseason," Lincoln said, "you've either been released or something has happened."
Lincoln was traded to the Phillies, where a muddled bullpen is his benefit. The 28-year-old right-hander is out of options and a near lock to make the Phillies. They traded a backup catcher (Erik Kratz) and minor-league left-hander (Rob Rasmussen) for Lincoln, who will make close to the league minimum of $500,000 in 2014.
The Phillies crave power arms for the middle of their bullpen. Lincoln can hit 96 mph with his fastball and averages 93 mph, a sharp uptick from his abandoned days as a starting pitcher. The 28-year-old Texan, heralded as one of the nation's best starters as a senior in college, embraced the change.
"I always say it's not what you want to do, it's what you're good at," Lincoln said. "I found a niche in the bullpen."
Lincoln was drafted ahead of Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, Max Scherzer and Ian Kennedy. He was the fourth overall pick in 2006, one behind Evan Longoria and 14 selections ahead of Kyle Drabek, the Phillies' first pick that season. Less than a year after Pittsburgh drafted Lincoln, he underwent Tommy John surgery, and the expectations dipped.
He made his major-league debut in the shadow of another. Stephen Strasburg struck out 14 Pirates on June 8, 2010. The next night, 21,439 fewer people watched from Nationals Park as Lincoln allowed five runs in six innings.
"Hopefully," he said then, "it'll get better from here."
Lincoln, a fragment from the failed Dave Littlefield era in Pittsburgh, never forged a role with the Pirates. He started, relieved, started again, and pitched in every situation. The Pirates dealt him to Toronto at the 2012 trade deadline, and instability followed Lincoln to another country.
"I really haven't been in a set role," Lincoln said. "I can pitch anywhere from the second inning to the ninth inning. ... Hopefully I can be put in those high-leverage situations where they trust me to get guys out with runners on base."
The Blue Jays did not extend such faith. Lincoln faced 148 batters last season; 100 plate appearances were designated as "low-leverage" situations by Baseball-Reference. He walked 22 batters in 312/3 innings. That merited demotion, but Lincoln mastered triple A with a 2.05 ERA in 23 games and solid strikeout-to-walk ratio.
There was no September promotion as reward. "Never got a call," Lincoln said. "Nothing."
"You're talking to the wrong guy," he said.
Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg labeled Lincoln "a bulldog-type of guy." Pitching coach Bob McClure watched tape of Lincoln this winter and said there is "no question" Lincoln could fill a variety of relief roles.
"He just seemed like a very competitive pitcher," McClure said. "Aggressive. He came right after hitters. I didn't know him, but just from watching him he seemed real aggressive."
Lincoln throws his sweeping curveball a third of the time. He is a fastball-curveball pitcher -- part of the logic behind a transition from starter to reliever -- and tinkers with a split change-up at times. "That third pitch is icing on the cake," he said.
So, too, is some certainty.
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