Charlie Morton vs. Jeff Locke: who is more deserving of spot in Pittsburgh Pirates’ rotation?


The Pittsburgh Pirates will likely add at least one starting pitcher to their rotation this offseason, whether that comes via free agency or a trade. There’s a chance that that’s all the Pirates could do for their rotation before Opening Day next season. One addition would make five starters, and then the team could add minor league depth options and wait for Tyler Glasnow and possibly Jameson Taillon to arrive. Some, like myself, would say that the Pirates can’t stick with both Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke at the back-end of the rotation. A World Series contender shouldn’t have two poor number five starters in its rotation.

But let’s say that the Pirates choose to hold onto just one of them. I believe that’s perfectly reasonable. Let’s say they have to move on from just one of either Morton or Locke, and they do indeed move on from one of them this offseason. Which one should they keep?

There are a number of factors to consider when trying to decide between the two. For starters, let’s look at their contracts. Morton is under contract at $8 million for next season, and then has a $9.5 million club option for 2017. Locke is entering his first year of arbitration next year, and then has two arbitration years remaining after that in 2017 and 2018. Neither performed well last season, and both were below replacement-level players. Essentially, neither player was worth any of the money they made last season. Morton was worth -0.7 WAR (according to ESPN) while Locke was worth -0.6 WAR. But Locke made pennies compared to what Morton made and thus, Locke may be given a longer leash than Morton.

Contract-wise, the Pirates can afford to have Locke performing poorly more than they can afford to have Morton performing poorly. Locke gets the benefit of the doubt in this regard.

In terms of 2015 performance, neither pitcher was very good. Locke had the third-worst ERA in the National League while Morton, if he had qualified, would have had the second-worst ERA in the NL. Unless we’re splitting hairs, both players performed comparably poorly last season. Morton had a hot start once he came back from injury, but after those first few starts, he fell off a cliff and never recovered. Locke had a couple decent starts at the beginning of the year, but outside of one fantastic July 4th start, he didn’t last deep into games and gave up runs in almost every outing. Locke ended up with the lower ERA but Morton had the lower WHIP and K/BB ratio. Both averaged virtually identical innings per outing (less than six), while Morton gave up more home runs per inning. I’d give Locke the slight edge in 2015 performance, but not by much.

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If we look at the history of each player, we notice a similar story. Morton performed better than Locke in both 2013 and 2014, and was generally a quality three or four starter in both of those years. Locke performed well in both 2013 and 2014, however, each season’s performance was carried by great first halves that were followed by poor second halves. Both have regressed each season since 2013. Over the past three seasons, however, Morton has posted a total WAR of 0.3, while Locke has posted a total WAR of 0.8. Locke gets a slight edge here as well.

There are other factors to consider too. Morton is injury prone, and has never once made 30 starts in a season. However, Morton has shown the ability to be electric at times. Locke may allow fewer runs than Morton from time to time, but he never seems to last deep into games. Morton can be really good or really bad, while Locke is consistently below-average. Locke is four years younger than Morton but, oddly enough, it still seems that Morton has a higher upside than Locke does.

It was tough last season to watch a 98-win team send out two pitchers whose performance didn’t warrant a place on the team. However, it was somewhat understandable, considering the injuries the team suffered to their minor league depth options and the payroll restrictions. Next season, both may very well be back, but, in my opinion, at least one of them should be replaced. Based on all of the information above, I’d rather see Morton as the number five starter for the Pittsburgh Pirates than Locke. I understand Morton will make a lot more money than Locke will, but I also feel that Morton has the ability to bounce back to his 2013 and 2014 form. He has the potential to have a good outing more often than Locke does, and I’ll take that every time. Only time will tell if one or both of those two will be with the team on Opening Day in 2016.

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