BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Pirates have shelved their top pitching prospect and shifted one of their top hitting prospects.
General manager Dave Littlefield yesterday announced that starter Brad Lincoln, the team's first-round draft pick last summer, has an elbow injury -- one that could cause him to miss all of spring training -- and that Neil Walker, the first-round pick in 2004, will be converted from a catcher to a third baseman.
Management can only hope that the Walker matter is the only one with long-term implications.
Lincoln was held out of the first workout of spring training yesterday at Pirate City after the team's medical staff determined that he developed what Littlefield described as "irritation" in the right elbow while throwing in the past month.
The next step for Lincoln will be two to four weeks of rest, followed by a throwing program. After that, further evaluation of the injury will be made.
"He'll be no-throw for a little while until that calms down," Littlefield said.
Any elbow pain is a red flag for pitchers, as ligament damage requires major surgery -- often called Tommy John surgery -- and a year or more of recovery. Entire careers can be derailed.
There is no cause yet to believe Lincoln's problem is that serious, a source close to Lincoln said yesterday. All that is known is that there is a strained muscle in the forearm which might or might not be a sign of underlying ligament damage.
Lincoln, 21, had his first professional season cut short by a strained left oblique in August, but he has no history of elbow trouble. He was 1-2 with a 6.75 ERA in four starts for the Pirates' Class A affiliate in Hickory.
He sounded optimistic yesterday that he will pitch soon.
"With God's help, I'm just going to work my tail off and hope for the best," Lincoln said. "The main thing for me is being healthy and staying healthy, and coming back to actually show them what I can do. I want to let 'em know I'm here for real this year."
If Lincoln has surgery, that would extend a remarkable -- and regrettable -- run for the Pirates. In the past decade, five of the six pitchers they drafted in the first round before Lincoln -- Clint Johnston, Bobby Bradley, Sean Burnett, John Van Benschoten and Bryan Bullington -- have needed major arm surgeries. The only exception is Paul Maholm.
The changing of Walker's position came as no surprise to him.
The Pirates had discussed with him over the winter that he could get work at third base or right field this spring. Management chose third base, partly because Walker spent time there as a senior at Pine-Richland High School, but mostly because, with Ronny Paulino a fixture at catcher, Walker will not be blocked at the major-league level once ready.
"Neil has a lot of potential with the bat, and we think this is a quicker way for him to get to Pittsburgh," Littlefield said.
Walker, a 21-year-old switch-hitter, is slated to open this season with Class AA Altoona.
"The earlier you can make that decision in someone's career, the better," Littlefield said. "It's certainly one we debated a lot, but he's such a good athlete, with good quickness and a strong arm, that we feel he can do well over there. Paulino's come along and done a super job, and we've got another good-looking catcher in Ryan Doumit, so this made sense."
Walker got started yesterday when he took infield grounders during the workout and never donned his catcher's gear.
"This is how it looks like it's going to be, and I'm fine with that," he said. "The important thing is getting to the big leagues, and I'm willing to do whatever it takes."
Walker batted .271 with five home runs and 38 RBIs in 82 games last season for the Pirates' Class A affiliate in Lynchburg and in Altoona.