Lincoln, who was selected by the Pirates as the fourth overall pick in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft on Tuesday, has been making hitters look bad ever since.
After being named as a starter in the Cape Cod League All-Star Game last summer, Lincoln returned to the University of Houston for his junior season, where the 21-year-old skillfully mixed in a 97-mph fastball with an off-the-table curveball to overpower his college competition. In 17 starts with the Cougars, Lincoln was 12-2 with a 1.69 ERA and 151 strikeouts in 127 2/3 innings. An outstanding athlete, Lincoln also batted .295 with 14 home runs and 53 RBIs as a DH/1B in college.
The Pirates had been scouting Lincoln since his days as a senior at Brazoswood High School in Clute, Tex. They jumped at the opportunity to take the player who Baseball America rated as having the best command and third-best fastball among all college pitchers.
"We saw nearly every one of his starts this year. We know what we are getting here," said Pirates scouting director Ed Creech, who personally attended about a half dozen of Lincoln's outings. "We're very happy."
Pirates scouts compare Lincoln favorably to another hard-throwing right-hander with a plus curveball: Milwaukee Brewers ace Ben Sheets.
"I see [Lincoln] as a high-ceiling starter," said Creech.
Pirates GM Dave Littlefield always has the final word on his team's first-round pick. He gave Lincoln the nod because of the right-hander's combination of physical tools and big-league readiness.
"He was the most talented guy available," said Littlefield. "He's someone that we think is accomplished and closer [to the big leagues] than the next group of players who are out there."
The Pirates have already begun negotiations with Lincoln's advisors Peter Vescono and Larry Berkman, father of Astros slugger Lance Berkman. Both parties believe that a deal is imminent.
"We're real close," Creech said just minutes after selecting Lincoln. "We hope to have something [that] can be done today, or if not today, in the next week."
"Within the week, I'm sure I will be signed," said Lincoln. "I want to get my feet wet quick. I want to get out there and start playing. I don't want to hold out. I want to get to where they are going to send me and get going."
Ryan Zimmerman, who was the fourth overall pick in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft, was given a $2.975 million bonus by the Washington Nationals. It is believed that Lincoln will receive a similar deal from the Pirates.
If the Pirates and Lincoln are able to quickly come to terms, Lincoln will be sent to Bradenton, Fla. for an orientation program before heading out to either low Class A Hickory or high Class A Lynchburg at the end of this month. Because of Lincoln's heavy workload in the past 12 months, his pitches and innings will be monitored closely by the Pirates player development staff.
"He'll definitely be on a pitch count," said Creech. "He threw a lot of innings last summer and this summer. He was [Houston's] horse."
The Pirates would like to see Lincoln follow the same developmental path as Paul Maholm, their top pick in 2003. Maholm made his big-league debut last season after less than three years in the Minor League system.
To make that jump, however, the Pirates say Lincoln must improve command of his changeup.
"He's struck out a lot of players and really hasn't needed to use a third pitch," said Littlefield. "At [the professional] level he'll need to throw the changeup more often and develop it to the level it needs to be."
Lincoln, who said he looks up to fellow Texan Roger Clemens as a role model because of the Clemens' tireless work ethic, is ready to do whatever it takes to get the big leagues as soon as possible.
"I have to perform up to par. I have to go out there and show them what I have," said Lincoln. "Hopefully within the next two or three years I'll be playing at the big-league level. I'll put that on myself to get that done."
Lincoln joins Maholm, Byran Bullington (2002) and John Van Benschoten (2001) as the fourth college player to be selected by the Pirates in the first round since 2001. The Bucs took high school outfielder Andrew McCuthcen 11th overall last season and high school catcher Neil Walker 11th overall in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft.