Lincoln ascended to the Majors, along with highly touted prospects Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez, last June. Together, the three were expected to make an immediate impact and represent a key part of the organization's young core.
Tabata and Alvarez each impressed to varying degrees. Lincoln, however, struggled.
Those struggles have put the right-hander -- who was the No. 4 overall pick in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft -- in a precarious position heading into 2011. He doesn't have a rotation spot locked up and could find himself back in Triple-A Indianapolis' rotation, where he can continue to refine his mechanics, if the outcome from a Spring Training competition does not go his way.
Pittsburgh is preparing to enter camp with four starters -- Kevin Correia, Paul Maholm, James McDonald and Ross Ohlendorf -- favorites to claim the first four rotation spots. Lincoln is in a group challenging to earn the rotation's final spot, though his competition includes Charlie Morton, who is out of options, and Scott Olsen, who has had proven big league success before.
If management has already formulated a favorite for that fifth spot, it is not providing any hints.
"We don't want to make Spring Training evaluations, but in some cases we're going to have to," general manager Neal Huntington said. "I think the reality is that we're going to need more than five starting pitchers next year, so whoever doesn't make the rotation out of Spring Training, we're going to need the sixth, the seventh, the eighth one."
That challenge starts with Lincoln proving that he has recovered from the unsuccessful mechanic tweaks that proved detrimental to his results and confidence last year. Mechanical changes to Lincoln's delivery were forced on him shortly after he made the jump to the Majors and affected the righty's ability to execute in the same manner he had in the Minors. That led to some confidence issues, which had never been a problem before.
Less than two months after his hyped debut, Lincoln was back in the Minors, working again on those mechanics. He was back with the Pirates for the final month of the season, though he pitched only twice. Both appearances came in relief.
Overall, Lincoln finished his first season 1-4 with a 6.66 ERA. He walked 15 and struck out 25 in 52 2/3 innings. The right-hander gave up nine homers, and opponents hit .310 off of him.
"Getting the chance to play here was the biggest thing for me," Lincoln said. "It might not have been the map that we planned out, but it was an experience for me, and I'll never forget it. For me to get up here and for them to give me the opportunity, I'll always cherish that."
Now, though, there is work to be done to get back. And this time, to stick.
At the end of the season, Lincoln talked about plans to get a personal trainer during the offseason. The focus, Lincoln explained, would be more on his legs and core than in years past.
"I am going to get my body in the best shape possible to come into spring strong so that I can go all year without breaking down," Lincoln said. "I want to come in top physical form."
Lincoln also said he planned to arrive at Bradenton, Fla., well before reporting date to start working through his delivery with pitching coach Ray Searage.
"If you want to compete up here, you have to continue to work hard every day and just don't let up and don't take anything for granted," Lincoln said. "Hopefully, I can continue to improve and mark a spot here for next year."
It is, indeed, a big year for Lincoln, who has already spent parts of two seasons in Triple-A. Taken in the same Draft as two-time Cy Young award winner Tim Lincecum, Lincoln is set to turn 25 in May. Tommy John surgery did cost him one full season, but Lincoln's status as one of the Pirates' better pitching prospects lessens as he gets older.
"As excited as we were about him in May, we can't lose those feelings," Huntington said. "We can't lose the enthusiasm that we felt about him as a Major League pitcher. Now the challenge is to get him back there."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.