Jeff Locke – the forgotten member of the Pirates’ rotation


For much of this offseason, talk regarding the Pittsburgh Pirates’ pitching has revolved around the usual suspects: Francisco Liriano, who received the biggest free agent contract in Bucs history this offseason, an aging A.J. Burnett, who is returning to the Steel City for one last go-round and Gerrit Cole, who appears to be poised to break out as the team’s ace in 2015.

Lost in the shuffle is left-hander Jeff Locke, who, just two years ago, was one of the best arms available to manager Clint Hurdle.

Still only 27 years old, the former second-round pick of the Atlanta Braves is coming off a solid 2014 campaign during which he made 21 starts, amassing 131 1/3 innings of work – a step back from his All-Star season the year prior. Most of his numbers, including earned run average, FIP and strikeouts per nine, all regressed as well – and still, he’s one of the most promising – and stable – members of this year’s projected starting rotation.

Despite his setbacks, the southpaw posted a very respectable 3.91 earned run average for the Pirates, who reached the postseason for the second-straight season. He also saw his strikeout-to-walk ratio improve from a mere 1.49 mark in 2013 to 2.23 in 2014 – evidence of his improved control from the year prior.

Slotted anywhere from the third to the fifth spot in the Pirates’ 2015 starting rotation, it’s hard to figure out exactly where Locke will wind up come Opening Day. He appears to be a lock (no pun intended) to make the rotation, but the finer details will likely be sorted out during Spring Training.

Either Liriano or Cole is going to take the role of staff ace – and whoever loses in that duel will settle into the number two slot, forming a solid 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation. From there, some combination of Locke, Vance Worley and Burnett will round things out. And for my part, I feel it should go in that order – Locke, Worley and Burnett.

Now, a great many Pirates fans will tell me that Burnett, who has won 155 games during his big league career, is better than a back-end starting pitcher. And for Pittsburgh’s sake, I hope that to be the case. But suppose he ends up settling in as the number five man in the rotation. Would that really be such a bad thing?

I’ll talk more about Burnett in an upcoming piece, but for now, let’s get back to Locke.

At the very least, Locke will give you 150 innings of quality baseball. It’d be a nice problem to have.

We all know about the red-hot start he had two years ago, as he went 8-2 with a minuscule 2.15 ERA in the first-half, earning his first – and only – All-Star selection. However, as we also know, the wheels fell off for Locke after the Midsummer Classic as he stumbled and crawled his way to the end of the season, as his WHIP (1.866) and earned run average (6.12) both skyrocketed.

There are a couple of ways to project players’ production ahead of an upcoming season, two being Fangraphs’ Steamer and FANS. Both have Locke as a .500 pitcher in 2015 with an earned run average in the low-4.00s. And while it’s a fairly probable outcome, it seems like he could do more than that given the chance.

The latter has the lefty working out of the starting rotation and the bullpen – and neither has Locke tallying more than 148 innings (with that coming between starting and relief). If he works exclusively as a starter, there’s no reason he can’t push up against the career-best 166 1/3 innings he logged back in 2013 – at the very least providing a source of quality innings from the left side.

If the worst you can expect is a high-3.00 to low-4.00 ERA and 150-plus innings, then you don’t have a lot to complain about. And, if you ask me, it’s not out of the question that Locke puts together another All-Star caliber campaign – especially with A.J. Burnett back in the fold to mentor this young pitching staff.

No matter how the staff shakes out come Spring Training, one thing is for sure. A healthy Jeff Locke would take a solid Pittsburgh Pirates rotation and turn it into something formidable in the NL Central.

Next: John Axford heads to Colorado on minor league deal