BRADENTON, Fla. - Is the race for the final spot in the Pittsburgh Pirates rotation over before it has a chance to get warm?
On Monday morning, pitcher Brad Lincoln was optioned to Class AAA Indianapolis - a move that left Kevin Hart and Daniel McCutchen as the only candidates in the major league camp.
Indications are that Hart has the job until he loses it. Lincoln and McCutchen will begin to have their pitch counts extended this week, a move designed to prepare them for promotions to the parent club if necessary in the weeks ahead.
"I hope it's not me," said McCutchen, 27, who pitched four innings in a minor league intrasquad game at the Pirate City complex on Monday afternoon. "I didn't come here to be the ace of Indy. I expect this to be a competition."
This spring Hart has struggled with his control and been the least effective of the threesome. In three innings, he allowed seven runs and walked seven batters.
Hart had the most immediate upside of the three players that were acquired in the John Grabow trade with the Chicago Cubs last summer. As such, team management wants to give him every opportunity to claim the position.
At 27, Hart also has the most major league experience among the group.
"I won't eat the cheese," said Hart, who was scheduled to start against the Detroit Tigers on Thursday afternoon. "It's only the third week of camp. I'll focus on the process and try to get better every day. There's a lot of baseball to be played. A lot of things can happen."
In his first major league camp, Lincoln had a 3.00 ERA in six innings. His three appearances included one B game.
"Brad has done a great job this spring," pitching coach Joe Kerrigan said. "He has shown a lot of poise and maturity. I don't have to tell you about his stuff."
"When somebody throws that out there, it puts in the back of my mind that they want me here and soon," said Lincoln, 24. "So I'll work my butt off and try to get there as soon as possible. I'm ready to take the next step."
Donnie Veal also was sent to Class AAA Indianapolis. In three games, the left-hander allowed no runs, one hit and a pair of bases on balls.
Pitcher Bryan Morris was optioned to Class A Bradenton. Catcher Tony Sanchez and pitchers Jeff Sues, Justin Thomas and Virgil Vasquez were re-assigned to the minor league camp.
Forty-seven players are in the major league camp.
HANRAHAN TAKES BIG STEP: Reliever Joel Hanrahan threw on a mound for the second time since the start of the calendar year and reported no adverse effects afterward.
"A great first step," he called it.
This spring Hanrahan had not pitched because of a strained right elbow. His last session on a mound took place in early February.
"At first, I was nervous because I didn't know what to expect," admitted Hanrahan, who had no history of arm problems until late last season. "There's always that thought in your head that you might feel something. My elbow felt fine after first few pitches, and I was able to cut loose a little bit after that."
There is no timetable for his Grapefruit League debut at this time. If Hanrahan pitches effectively in games without complications upon his return, then he will start the regular season on the 25-man roster.
"That's the goal, anyway," he said. "If it's a few days later, then I can live with it as long as I'm healthy."
Reliever Octavio Dotel (strained left oblique) threw 31 pitches in live batting practice without incident.
AHEAD TO THE FUTURE: For the second consecutive game, the front nine had a hint of Opening Day to it.
The line-up: Andrew McCutchen, center field; Akinori Iwamura, designated; Garrett Jones, right field; Ryan Doumit, catcher; Lastings Milledge, left field; Jeff Clement, first base; Andy LaRoche, third base, Delwyn Young, second base; Ramon Vazquez, shortstop.
The only differences from the previous day were that Iwamura replaced Ryan Church at designated hitter, Delwyn Young filled in for Iwamura at second base and Vazquez replaced the injured Ronny Cedeno (right hand laceration) at shortstop.
NEXT . . .: Today the team has its first of two scheduled off days this spring.
The Detroit Tigers are scheduled to make their first visit to McKechnie Field on Wednesday afternoon. Hart will oppose Tigers left-hander Nate Robertson on the mound.