The Pirates' matchup against the Padres Sunday night quickly turned into a blowout, and Bucs fans yet again asked a question they've asked a lot at various points in the past couple years: What should the Pirates do about Jeff Locke?
The Padres mostly didn't hit Locke very hard tonight, but there's no excusing his performance. Jedd Gyorko's two-run single against Locke in the first came on a broken-bat flare, but those two runs wouldn't have happened if Locke hadn't walked two batters first. The Padres scored again in the second thanks to yet another poor defensive play by Pedro Alvarez that wasn't Locke's fault. But in the third, Locke gave up a two-run homer to Will Middlebrooks and then walked Will Venable, who moved up on a wild pitch and then came home on a single by Clint Barmes (who, by the way, had three hits in this one). Locke paid heavily for his three walks today, and his command was poor overall. Meanwhile, Odrisamer Despaigne worked deep into the game, using low-90s heat and a slooooow curveball to stymie Pirates hitters. The Bucs lost 7-1.
Okay, so -- what to do with Jeff Locke? In my view, the Pirates have only three reasonable choices -- they can swap Locke and Worley (who pitched four scoreless innings in garbage time after Locke left the game today), or they can keep Locke in the rotation, or they can make a trade. I'd probably go with option one and consider looking toward option three here in a month or so. A trade isn't very likely right now, especially in the next two weeks, when most GMs will be concentrating on the draft. Beginning in late June, though, the Pirates should be able to deal for a starting pitcher if they want to.
Beyond that, there isn't much the Pirates can do at the moment. Locke isn't very good, the Pirates need him. Tommy John surgeries for Jameson Taillon, Brandon Cumpton and Nick Kingham have badly burned the Pirates' starting pitching depth, and Locke and Worley are both out of options. The Bucs can't afford to lose either one of them, because if they did, they'd be only a couple injuries from giving starts to random waiver-wire pickups.
Also, Locke has been the victim of variance this year. In 2013, when he was an All-Star, I pointed out that his performance was unsustainable, because it wasn't built on matching peripherals. The same is true this year, but in the opposite direction. After today's performance, Locke has a 5.34 ERA, but a totally reasonable xFIP of 4.03. Basically, he's the same guy he was last year, but with a few more strikeouts and a few more walks. ZiPS and Steamer agree that he's likely to produce an ERA of around four for the rest of the season.
That's not great, but it's good enough for a fifth starter, especially when considering the alternatives. Casey Sadler, Clayton Richard and Adrian Sampson are the next three guys up at Indianapolis. Sadler's track record is a little sketchy -- he did well in a spot start in the big leagues this year, but his low strikeout rates in the high minors are a red flag. ZiPS thinks his ERA for the rest of the year would be 4.38. Steamer puts it at 3.64. If we split the difference, that's around four, about the same as Locke.
Given Richard's injury history, the Pirates surely know much more about him than a projection system would. But Richard has not produced even one win above replacement in a season since 2010, and he has an awful 4.4 K/9 in four starts at Indianapolis. He has a pretty good excuse for that, since he's been rehabbing. But unless watching Richard every week leads one to radically different conclusions than the numbers do, there's no reasonable evidence that he's a better pitcher than Locke right now.
Of Sadler, Richard and Sampson, Sampson is the guy I like best -- he looks, visually, like a credible big-league fifth starter right now, and his stats so far at Indianapolis back that up. But he's also only had 10 career starts at Triple-A. He probably can learn more from a couple more months there.
Besides Worley, Sampson is the closest thing to a slam-dunk upgrade the Pirates have. But there are good reasons to keep him in Triple-A, and in order to promote him, you'd probably have to get Locke off the roster entirely, because it wouldn't make sense to have both Locke and Worley in the bullpen. Getting rid of Locke entirely would be a mistake, in my view, unless the Pirates could get at least a decent depth starter for him in a trade. Locke's underlying numbers still indicate that he's can help, that the terrible results he's gotten this season won't continue, and that he's as good as or better than many of the Pirates' small handful of reasonable depth options.
I think the move, then, is to replace Locke with Worley and give Locke Worley's mopup role in the bullpen. And I think even that's debatable -- Worley has gotten better results than Locke, but his peripherals have been worse than Locke's this year. Either way, the Pirates need to keep Locke in the organization. He's frustrating, but he isn't as bad as he's looked so far this season, and the depth he represents is important.