Pirates most major-league ready prospect: Jeff Locke

Jeff Locke could make his way back to the Pittsburgh Pirates rotation. (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

With the offseason in full swing and teams working to finalize rosters for the upcoming season, let’s take a look at which player from inside the Pirates system is most likely to help the team in 2012. Fellow writer Dan Kirby posted a review of the most major-league ready prospects for all 30 teams, and he pegged LHP Jeff Locke as the one that should be most helpful to the Pirates. I couldn’t agree more.

He’s certainly not the best player in the Pirates farm system (Baseball America has him as their 10th-best prospect), and he’s only ranked as the sixth-best pitcher. But because a majority of the Pirates top prospects — namely Gerritt Cole, Jameson Taillon, Starling Marte, and Tony Sanchez — are still in the lower layers of the organization, Locke looks to be the player who will make the biggest impact on the major-league club this season.

The least-heralded player from the 2009 trade that sent Nate McClouth to Atlanta, Locke has turned out better than expected and has helped to make the deal quite a steal for the Pirates. Though he’s not the power pitcher the team needs in its rotation, he has three pitches he throws well (fastball in the 88-92 range, change and curve) and his K/9 numbers through the high minors (7.9 in triple-A, 8.4 in double-A) suggest he’s a pitcher intelligent enough to out-think hitters and effectively get batters out. More over, Locke has shown the ability to keep balls in the park while getting away from being the ground-ball pitcher he was earlier in his career.

On the downside, Locke has struggled with control on and off throughout his career. When he was included in the McClouth trade, he was having major issues and it seemed the Braves had given up on him. After correcting those issues and having a spectacular 2010 season, Locke again began to show control problems when the Pirates called him up to the majors last season. His control led to a very unspectacular stretch of four September starts in which Locke posted a 6.48 ERA with only 2.7 K/9. If he’s able to get those bugs out during winter ball and spring training, he can serve as a valuable asset to the major-league club in 2012.

Unless he manages to blow away team management in spring training, Locke is almost certain to start the season in triple-A. However, any injury or signs of ineffectiveness by a pitcher at the major-league level will prompt for a fast call-up. Locke’s K/9 numbers suggest he has the ability to effectively pitch in the majors. But if the Pirates would like to see him truly develop into a solid starter, then he needs to have more than a decent curve; he needs a movement pitch that can baffle a good number of the hitters he faces. Until he can develop that, Locke will be no more than a back-of-the-rotation pitcher with a ticking life before the organization’s big, young arms move up the ladder and arrive in Pittsburgh.

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