A Pirates’ rotation spot for Jeff Locke was a ‘lock’ this spring


I really couldn’t resist.

C’mon. Jeff Locke – lock? It had to be done. And now that it has, we can all move forward. Earlier on Monday, the Pittsburgh Pirates announced that left-hander Jeff Locke is the team’s fourth starter – beating out right-hander Vance Worley, who broke out in a big way last season for the Bucs.

Pittsburgh skipper Clint Hurdle weighed in on the decision to media members, including MLB.com, on Monday afternoon.

"“With these two men … we wrestled all over with this, right down to their ages. And they’re both 27,” Hurdle said. “Both worked so hard and wanted to be the guy. We looked at the [time] Jeff has been in the [Pittsburgh] uniform. We feel that getting out of the gate, we wanted to start with Locke in the rotation.”"

As someone who cared very little for Pirates-related news until early this year when I assumed my current role with Rum Bunter (apart from when they matched up against my Chicago Cubs), there was one primary reason I thought Locke may win the spot over Worley; apart from Opening Day starter Francisco Liriano, Pittsburgh had no other left-handers in the starting rotation.

And, at least to me, that was an issue – especially for a team looking to make a deep postseason run, with some experts, including ESPN’s Buster Olney, predicting Fall Classic bids for Hurdle’s club. Pittsburgh needed to show versatility and diversity in its pitching staff – and Locke does just that.

The two starters – both 27 years old – had decent springs, but the decision likely came down to the fact that neither option separated himself from the other – and for Worley, that’s bad news – simply because he’s a right-hander.

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As you can see, control issues are again a concern for Locke, who struggled mightily in the last few years with controlling his pitches. In 2013, he walked a staggering 84 batters in just 166 1/3 innings of work – leading the league. Last season, he was improved, raising his SO/BB ratio from 1.49 to 2.23 – although his earned run average rose by roughly half a run in 2014.

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This is arguably the biggest downside to Locke; but it also likely played a role in his making the starting rotation. You can’t have relievers who fail to hit the strike zone in the way Locke does – especially on a consistent basis. Worley, meanwhile, who has just one walk to-date this spring in Grapefruit League action, is known for hitting his spots – as evidenced by his career-best 3.59 strikeout-to-walk mark in 2014.

Furthermore, should the Bucs ever look to trade Locke, who as a left-hander could bring back more in a swap than yet-another right-handed starter, a demotion to the bullpen likely wouldn’t help his stock. This statement is only more true when you take into account his control struggles, which would make him even less attractive to potential suitors down the stretch should he be utilized as a relief option.

It wasn’t so long ago that Jeff Locke was a National League All-Star. During the first half of the 2013 campaign, the lefty pitched to an 8-2 mark with a 2.15 earned run average before fading fast down the stretch.

If he can come close to replicating such success in 2015, this decision could prove to be one of the best the front office has made in recent memory. Should he stumble, expect Vance Worley to be waiting in the wings – especially given the fact both men are anticipated to receive starting gigs at some point this year.