Looking at the Rotation Depth With Cole and Locke Struggling Lately

The Pittsburgh Pirates have been carried by their starting pitching all year. The reason the starting pitching has been able to carry the team all year has been due to depth, with the assist going to the defensive shifts that have kept the numbers down for everyone. But defensive shifts can only do so much, and they can’t do anything if you don’t have a good foundation of pitching to work with.

We’re getting to the end of the 2013 season, and about to enter the final stretch of the playoff push. The Pirates currently have a one game lead in the NL Central. In eight days, rosters will expand, giving the Pirates a chance to bring up more of their starting pitching depth. That depth might be coming at the perfect time too.

Yesterday we heard the news that Wandy Rodriguez would visit Dr. James Andrews. It’s not a guarantee, but this could mean that he’s done for the season. Last night Jeff Locke struggled for his second straight start, after putting up a series of average starts after the break. All season we have been talking about Jeff Locke’s regression. We’re now seeing it first hand, and it’s going a bit beyond regression in the last two outings. Gerrit Cole has also struggled at times lately as he has already reached his 2012 innings totals. The Pirates might need to consider giving these two young starters a break, and rosters expanding in September would be the perfect time to do so.

The Pirates have seen Brandon Cumpton and Kris Johnson come up to the majors this year to fill in for the pitching staff. Cumpton made a few starts, while Johnson threw six innings in relief last week. Jeanmar Gomez has filled in as a starter, and pretty much any other role the Pirates have needed. That group could help take some pressure off the Pirates’ rotation, especially Cole and Locke.

Cole has already passed his 2012 innings totals. He threw 132 innings in 2012 and has 146 this season. He could be on pace for much more than that if he stays in the rotation the rest of the year making regular starts. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him moving to the bullpen at some point in September when better options emerge.

Kris Johnson threw six innings in his major league debut. (Photo credit: David Hague)

Kris Johnson threw six innings in his major league debut. (Photo credit: David Hague)

Johnson has already thrown 136.2 innings, which is more than his 101.2 innings last year. However, he threw 130+ innings in four of the five years from 2007-2011, so this is somewhat familiar territory for him. Also, not to make it sound like these aren’t people, but Johnson is a 28-year-old pitcher who is one of the last options in a very talented pitching staff. Cole is a 22-year-old starter who is supposed to be the future of the rotation. If you’re going to give one a drastic increase in innings, you’ve got more reason to play it safe with Cole, since there’s a bigger investment in his future.

Cumpton threw 152.1 innings last year, and is currently at 144 this year. He doesn’t have a long track record of innings, so he could be in the same situation as Cole. He had eight shutout innings in his last start. He did give up ten earned runs in 17 innings over his three starts before that, so it’s hard to say how he’ll perform down the stretch as his innings increase. I’d be surprised if he’s used for more than a spot start.

Jeanmar Gomez has plenty of innings left, as he threw 160 last year, and currently has 76.1 innings this year. Gomez has put up some good numbers this year, with a 3.29 ERA, although going with him as a full-time starter over someone like Locke isn’t really learning a lesson from Locke.

Locke’s numbers have been better this year, with a 3.01 ERA compared to the 3.29 ERA. More important, Locke’s advanced metrics don’t suggest that ERA will hold up, and we’ve been seeing the regression lately. Locke has a 3.87 FIP. Gomez has a 3.90 FIP. Going forward, we could expect both pitchers to perform at about the same level. Locke also has innings remaining, as he threw 176 last year, and has 143.2 innings this year.

One option that I haven’t mentioned is Stolmy Pimentel. He has put together a tremendous season this year between Double-A and Triple-A. The problem is that he’s sitting at 163.1 innings, after throwing 115.2 innings last year. His career high is 128.2 innings. So to expect him to pitch as a starter down the stretch might be asking a bit much.

The options for the back of the rotation seem to be Locke, Cole, Johnson, and Gomez. Locke and Cole are obviously in the rotation, while Johnson and Gomez would be the replacement options if those starters need a break.

I’m not sure that the Pirates desperately need to replace either pitcher. If there’s one pitcher who needs to be replaced, it might be Cole. He has passed his 2012 innings totals, and he is starting to struggle. At his current pace, if he was left in the rotation, he would be in line for an increase of about 50 innings over his 2012 totals, not counting playoff innings.

Jeanmar Gomez Pirates

Jeanmar Gomez would be the top rotation replacement if the Pirates replaced one of Cole or Locke. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Gomez would be my top replacement. Sure, he’s a regression candidate like Locke. But even if he does regress, Gomez will put up numbers in line with a league average pitcher, which isn’t a bad thing. He also has plenty of innings left compared to his totals from last year and previous years.

As for Locke, everyone is down on him because he gave up 11 earned runs in 6.2 innings over the last two starts. I wouldn’t pull the plug on him just yet. The walks are bad, but the walks have been bad all year. He’s now starting to let some of those runners score, and that’s the main difference between first half Jeff Locke and second half Jeff Locke. That’s not to say he’s been pitching well in August. But if you take out those last two starts, Locke is out-performing his FIP numbers, no matter if you want to go back to the All-Star break, the start of July, or any other point in the season.

The argument all year with Locke has been that he will regress, and that we can’t assume he will continue to out-perform the advanced metrics over success in a small sample size. It would be hypocritical to turn around and remove him from the rotation after two straight bad outings. He might need to be skipped a turn in the rotation, but when looking at Locke versus Kris Johnson and Brandon Cumpton (who are both up against their career innings totals), I still think Locke is the best option.

That could change if Locke keeps pitching the way he did in the last two starts. The Pirates should definitely have someone like Jeanmar Gomez ready to step in if Locke doesn’t look good. They should also be willing to pull the plug quickly, and quicker than last night. That might be the biggest advantage of having guys like Johnson, Cumpton, and Pimentel up in September. If someone like Locke starts to struggle early, the Pirates can pull that pitcher early, replace him with a guy who can pitch several innings, and not have to worry about blowing up the bullpen.

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

Share This Post On