Two major pieces of news came out of Pirates camp today. Matt Joyce has made the team and Jeff Locke is going to be the fourth starter, leaving Vogelsong and Nicasio to battle it out over the fifth spot.
I like Joyce making the team. They need a left-handed bat off the bench, and their only real option currently is John Jaso if he’s sitting against a lefty. Even then, he would be likely to enter a game once the starter is out, so he’s not really a bench bat in the traditional, pinch-hitting sense. That leaves us with Matt Joyce, who provides the left-handed bat with some power, too; he’s three years removed from hitting 18 homers and slugging .419 with the Rays. Not exactly a huge power hitter, but not terrible numbers, either. Additionally, having someone who at least grades out as an average outfielder by UZR/150 is nice as a defensive backup to CMP sundae (Cutch, Marte, and Polanco. I’m coining that acronym now because it’s like a CMP sundae, which is a delicious sundae with chocolate syrup, marshmallow fluff, and peanuts, for those of you not from Central PA) in case one of them gets hurt, like Marte tends to do with minor, nagging injuries. While Joyce may not be a great choice for the bench, he’s better than any of the other options the Pirates had and can play a smidge more outfield than “super utility men” Sean Rodriguez and Josh Harrison.
Jeff Locke as the #4 starter is a scarier proposition for me. In my mind, Locke is a fringe #5 starter, which is what he’s been for the Pirates for a few years now. Pitching when he’s good, relegated to the bullpen or just not pitching at all when he sucks. It’s not so much the fact that he’s definitely made the rotation that worries me; it’s that he’s the nominal #4 starter on a team that’s supposed to be built to win a tough division and a World Series. That means that 40% of the rotation (and maybe 60%, pending how Niese pitches once the regular season gets rolling) is questionable, which isn’t a good spot to be in starting the season. Injuries inevitably will come, and maybe Juan Nicasio or Tyler Glasnow will fill in and be excellent, but that isn’t something to count on. So the same lack of pitching that many people have been lamenting all offseason is rearing its head in the form of Jeff Locke, newly minted #4 starter for the Pirates.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Pirates go with a new strategy for Locke this year, though. He typically starts to struggle the third time through the order, so it’s possible that he’ll have an extremely short leash once this time rolls around and Clint Hurdle will be willing to pull him in the fourth or fifth inning in favor a few innings of relief from Juan Nicasio (assuming he’s in the bullpen, which is my guess for where he starts the season). This makes it more like having the best part of two different starters in each game, which seems better than watching Locke pitch the Pirates right out of the game in the fifth or sixth inning. If I’m trying to put a positive spin on things, I think that Locke has always flashed the potential for being a pretty solid starter and just has to put it together for a complete season (he was an All-Star and shut down for the season due to poor performance in the same year, which is pretty difficult to do), so maybe this year is his year.