PNC PARK – No matter how well Jeff Locke pitches – and he’s pitching very well – there’s a chance he will simply not remain in the rotation. It’s simple math: when Francisco Liriano is healthy, the Pirates have six starting pitchers vying for five spots and Locke is the one pitcher who has options. Vance Worley, Charlie Morton and Edinson Volquez are pitching well and are all out of options. Gerrit Cole is in the rotation when healthy and I think Liriano is, too. The Pirates want to protect their assets and their pitching depth so ….
Locke appears to be the odd man odd, unless the Pirates’ starting staff has another injury pop up, which over the remainder of the season, is likely to occur.
Locke has pitched eight innings in three of his last five starts
Has Locke forced his way in the rotation? It doesn’t sound like it.
“Question for another day,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “I really like the way he’s pitching.”
What was interesting in watching Locke out-duel his old buddy AJ Burnett on Sunday is how Locke has taken the best from Burnett – the inside two-seamer approach, the spiked-curve – and make real gains with his changeup and strike-throwing ability.
The tw0-seamer is playing like it did in the first half last year. He was getting it up to 92-93 with movement on Sunday. Locke had a superb 15-to-1, groundball-to-flyball ratio.
The changeup is much better, Locke got Phillies catcher Cameron Rupp to swing and miss on a changeup that had so much fading action it looked like a screwball.
Locke learned the spiked-curve from Burnett, and while he didn’t throw many on Sunday, he did generate some swings and misses.
I was skeptical about Locke last season and this off-season, particularly regarding ability to pitch in the strike zone. But he’s attacking the strike zone this year and has walked just six in 50 innings. He’s upgraded his status in my eyes, and even if he is sent down to Triple-A, he’ll likely be back at some point after the All-Star break. He’s certainly in the club’s long-term plans with Liriano and Volquez as free agents after the season.
Remember, Neal Huntington likes to say depth is fleeting … because it is. There’s nothing wrong with having pitching depth.
STARTING NINE THOUGHTS
9. Josh Harrison an all-star? Truly the feel-good story of the summer. I love what Harrison brings to the table. He’s meant a lot to the Pirates this year. I don’t think he’s an all-star level player, but, the selection is not crazy if you consider his positional versatility for a potential extra-inning game.
Speaking of Harrison, it looks like he is in line for more playing time at shortstop following Clint Barmes’ Grade 3 groin strain.
Huntington said Harrison was going to see time at shortstop regardless of Barmes’ health and now he will see more time. What is the plan to get Harrison on the field at shortstop? Ideally it’s with a fly-ballish pitcher on the mound.
“In a perfect world you put your best defensive lineup out there behind Charlie (Morton), who keeps ball on the ground on the most,” Huntington said. “But if the rest day falls on Charlie’s day, he’ll be comfortable putting Harrison there.”
8. Obviously, Andrew McCutchen is an all-star but I do think Tony Watson is the team’s other deserving all-star and it’s nice to see a relief pitcher being evaluated for his true skills and not his save totals.
Watson has been charged with just one earned run since April 22. He is 3-0 with a 0.29 ERA over his last 30 appearances. The K level is elite and the BB rate is well above average.
Best lefty Pirates reliever in recent memory?
7. Are the Pirates for real or the product of a weak schedule?
*I think they are for real in the sense they are a playoff contender, in not an NL championship contender.
*The Pirates are 9th in RPI, which suggests this isn’t just the product of playing a weak schedule.
*The Pirates’ run differential is +12 since May 1.
*The Pirates were once eight games under .500 now they are six games above.
6. Jordy Mercer has been much better but he still has a .290 on-base mark and a .372 slugging mark. I think shortstop could be upgraded.
5. Edinson Volquez is pitching well … but he intrigues me as a late-innings reliever. What could he be if he consistently pitched in upper 90s in short stints?
4. I’m not too concerned about Gerrit Cole … yet. Yes, the second muscular injury/tweak creates something of trend and his velocity has declined later in some of his recent starts but he’ still touching upper 90s. I might consider shutting him down until after the all-star break, though. They need Cole to be at his best in September like he was a year ago.
3. Hurdle says the Pirates continue to work Pedro Alvarez on his throwing. At some you wonder if Alvarez is what he is: a flawed hitter who is going to have to move to first base.
2. Huntington says no position change for the hot-hitting Josh Bell, yet (who will be in the Futures Game, which is more interesting to me than the All-Star game)
1. Huntington said the Pirates are willing to trade prospects for the right fit … but they’re also not going to compromise their future. AJ Burnett is not the Phillie I would have my eye. Cliff Lee is. Lee is a guy who be a difference maker.
(Man was Brandon McCarthy acquired cheaply)
STAT OF THE WEEK: 17
Alvarez’s MLB-worst throwing errors. Alvarez leads the baseball in errors (18) and all but one have been of the throwing variety. Josh Donaldson (10) is the only other major leaguer to have double-digit throwing errors. Alvarez’s first-inning throw on Sunday sailed four rows into the stands.
HE SAID IT
A.J. Burnett on his reception Sunday.
“The video caught me by surprise. It was very moving, for sure. It made me feel at home. (The ovation) caught me off guard. I didn’t know what to expect coming in. Very classy.”
I don’t think he’s coming back to Pittsburgh … but I think he would accept a trade here.
NON-BASEBALL RECOMMENDATION OF THE WEEK
It’s not really new any more, but I do like the newish Foster the People album. This song has been playing after some Pirates’ games recently:
Maybe your 2014 Pirates are coming of age …