Is Jeff Locke Ready for AAA?

Locke had another great start in Altoona today.

The Pittsburgh Pirates started Jeff Locke out in Altoona again this year, partially because he only pitched 57.2 innings at the level in 2010, and also to create room in the AAA rotation for guys like Sean Gallagher and Brian Burres, who could get the call to the majors in the event of an injury to the rotation early in the season.

In 2010, Locke was impressive in Altoona, with a 3.59 ERA in 57.2 innings, spanning ten starts.  In that time, he had a 56:12 K/BB ratio.  Heading in to today’s start, Locke had 9.1 innings, with a 1.93 ERA, ten strikeouts, and two walks.  He followed his first two outings up with a gem today.

Locke threw 6.1 innings, allowing two runs on three hits, with no walks and six strikeouts. The line doesn’t look overly impressive, however, both runs scored with Tom Boleska on the mound.  Locke allowed just one hit in six innings, needing only 57 pitches to get that far.  In those 57 pitches, he threw 45 strikes.  He started off the seventh inning with a pop out to second, but followed that up with a double and a single, putting runners at first and third with a 2-0 lead.  Despite only throwing 64 pitches, 50 for strikes, Locke was lifted from the game, and replaced with Boleska.  Boleska started off with a wild pitch, bringing the first run in, and a batter later, allowed a sacrifice fly to tie the score.

On the season, Locke has a 2.30 ERA in 15.2 innings, with a 9.20 K/9 and a 1.15 BB/9 ratio.  If that was the limit to his experience at the AA level, I’d say he would need more time.  However, Locke pitched well in 2010, and finished off his season with a 1.54 ERA in two playoff starts.  In his career at the AA level, he now has a 3.31 ERA in 73.1 innings, with an 8.84 K/9 and a 1.72 BB/9 ratio.

One of the reasons the Pirates held Locke down was due to the need for guys in AAA that could step in to the majors early in the season, allowing prospects like Rudy Owens and Justin Wilson to develop at a steady pace.  There doesn’t seem to be the same need at this point, at least not for two AAAA pitchers in the Indianapolis rotation.  Kevin Correia, Charlie Morton, and Paul Maholm have all gotten off to good starts, outside of last night’s start for Maholm.  The Pirates have Jeff Karstens replacing Ross Ohlendorf, and while James McDonald is struggling, it’s too early to take him out of the rotation.

The Pirates have Karstens and one of Brian Burres or Sean Gallagher as options to fill in at the major league level, in the event of an injury.  They also have Brad Lincoln in AAA, and there’s been some debate over whether Rudy Owens should get the call now, after two strong starts at the AAA level.  The Pirates have enough backup options available to make room in the AAA rotation for Locke.  I could see him making one or two more starts in Altoona, but if he continues at this pace, I’d be surprised if he’s still in AA by the middle of May.

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The Hammer

When Lincoln gets the call up next week, McCutchen will get sent down. Then they need to decide if they want Cutch as a starter or a reliever. If a reliever, call up Locke to fill the rotation spot.

Otherwise I’m with you. In June promote him and give Brian Burres his outright release and let him try to catch on somewhere else. If Burres isn’t up by June he isn’t going up unless there are a rash of injuries.

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