Lincoln trade a clear win for Amaro, Phillies

Lincoln trade a clear win for Amaro, Phillies
December 4, 2013, 11:15 am
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Brad Lincoln has a 3.76 ERA since 2012. (USA Today Images)

A common criticism of Ruben Amaro Jr. in recent years has been that he's failed to make the under-the-radar trade. Sure, he's landed big fish like Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence, but in those deals he acquired stars with rising salaries from teams looking to cut costs or rebuild, for packages of prospects. You can't discount those moves, but oftentimes it's easier to trade for a superstar than it is to inexpensively acquire a key role player.

There weren't too many trades Amaro "won" -- deals like the very first one he made as Phillies GM, when he sent Greg Golson to the Rangers for John Mayberry Jr. Mayberry hasn't been a top performer by any stretch, but he's given the Phillies significantly more than Golson has given any team at the major-league level.

On Tuesday night, Amaro executed one of those under-the-radar trades, sending backup catcher Erik Kratz and minor-league lefty Rob Rasmussen to the Blue Jays for right-handed reliever Brad Lincoln, a pitcher with talent coming off of a down year.

Lincoln was an ascending setup man as recently as 2012. He had a 2.73 ERA in 59 1/3 innings with the Pirates before being traded at the deadline to Toronto for Travis Snider, who Pittsburgh then started in the outfield. Lincoln's peripheral numbers in Pittsburgh were solid -- 9.1 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, 1.10 WHIP. He proceeded to struggle down the stretch in the AL.

In 2013, he encountered control problems for the first time. He walked 22 batters in 31 2/3 big-league innings. It's a clear outlier season when you look at the rest of his career. From 2010-12, Lincoln walked just 2.6 batters per nine innings. In seven minor-league seasons, he walked 1.9 per nine. Then that number spiked to 6.3 in 2013, and as a result his ERA rose.

This was the perfect time to go after a pitcher like Lincoln, who still has value and upside but fell out of favor in Toronto after a shaky season. At 28, he has plenty of time to figure things out. And if he does, the Phillies will have his prime years for very affordable prices. Lincoln earned less than $500,000 this past season, and won't begin the arbitration process until next winter. The Phillies have him under team control through the end of 2017.

Flyballs are the biggest concern in Lincoln's move to the Phillies. His flyball rate last season was a whopping 51.1 percent, eighth-highest among all major-league relievers. Citizens Bank Park, of course, isn't the best place to bring that propensity for fly balls. Lincoln's allowed 18 homers in 119 2/3 innings the last two seasons.

But the chance that Lincoln does recapture his 2012 magic is certainly worth parting with a backup catcher in Kratz and a lefty in Rasmussen who's been traded four times and never threw a pitch in the Phillies' system. (Rasmussen was dealt from Miami to Houston for Carlos Lee; from Houston to the Dodgers for John Ely; and from the Dodgers to the Phillies for Michael Young.)

Kratz came up with some clutch hits in his two years with the Phils, but by nature, backup catchers are easy to replace. The Phils reportedly agreed to terms with Wil Nieves on Tuesday night, and there shouldn't be much of a dropoff from Kratz to Nieves or Cameron Rupp.

Lincoln's profile is similar to that of Josh Lindblom, the reliever the Phils acquired from the Dodgers in 2012 for Shane Victorino. Lindblom didn't work out here -- he gave up too many homers and was shipped to Texas for Young last winter. But that doesn't mean Lincoln won't succeed. Reliever performance is more volatile from year to year than any position.

And that's the final piece of the puzzle here: Lincoln for $600,000 or less is a better gamble than an Edward Mujica-type for three years. The Phillies are already spending $20 million on Jonathan Papelbon and Mike Adams in 2014. They need to fill out the bullpen with experienced, inexpensive pieces. Lincoln is just that.

Two more names to keep in mind: right-handed sinkerballer Ryan Webb and lefty specialist Wesley Wright, who have each thrived since 2011 and were set to earn less than $2 million through arbitration, but were non-tendered Monday because of financial concerns from their teams.