I wrote this last week, but screwed it up in the CMS editor and somehow didn't realize that it hadn't run until yesterday. Sorry about that.
It doesn't take a long look at the Pirates' pitching staff to find room for Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson in 2012. Francisco Liriano is still nursing his goofy non-throwing arm injury, Jeff Karstens has a bum shoulder that we have almost no information on beyond the fact that this is his third shoulder problem in three years, Charlie Morton is out until mid-season recovering from his Tommy John surgery, and Gerrit Cole needs time in Triple-A. That leaves one or two Opening Day rotation spots available without asking questions about the rotation's top three or taking any sort of performance questions into account. Both Locke and McPherson will get a few starts apiece this year; if either of them is able to step up and perform at a big league level, there's a good chance that they'll be given a chance to start more than that. So is either of them up to the task?
I have a hard time putting my finger on exactly what the Pirates have in Locke. When he came to the Pirates from the Braves' system in the Nate McLouth trade, he was a promising young lefty with control problems. The Pirates have straightened him out on that front and as a result, his Triple-A numbers (between 2011 and 2012 he's spent roughly the equivalent of a full season at the level) are better than his numbers at any level other than rookie ball. He keeps the ball on the ground and in the park, he throws strikes, and he misses enough bats to be effective. He doesn't look like a burgeoning star or anything, but he does have a distinctly Paul Maholm look about him, and I suspect the Pirates would be pretty happy with Paul Maholm still in the rotation eating up some innings right now.
His big league starts have been something else entirely. In 2011 and 2012, he's made ten total big league starts. In four of them, he's allowed five or more runs. I watched Locke's first start last year — against the Astros on Labor Day — and he was really unimpressive. He mowed through the back end of the Astros' pathetic post-trade deadline lineup without breaking a sweat, but he allowed seven hits to Jose Altuve, veteran Tyler Greene, and Brett Wallace. Those three guys used those seven hits to score five times. You could look at his line and think it was decent enough (he struck out six and walked just one in his five innings), but the reality was that he struggled badly against most of the hitters in the Astros lineup that could be considered big league players and padded his stats against the rest.
Parsing through Locke's 2012 numbers are similar difficult. There's the bad ERA (5.50) and there's the astronomical home run rate (six in 34 1/3 innings, basically three times his rate in Indy), but there's also a good strikeout rate (34 in those 34 1/3 innings), decent control, and a 49% groundball rate. As a result, Locke's xFIP (3.70) is downright solid and you could easily look at his numbers and conclude that he'd gotten unlucky with the home runs and that he'll be generally fine this year in the back of the rotation.
That might be the right conclusion to draw with him, honestly. I can tell you that none of his starts last September impressed me and that my own personal opinion of him took a hit as a result, but it's still only 51 innings and ten starts and 12 appearances over two seasons. If we use the Paul Maholm comparison, Maholm was a terrible starter as a 24-year old and a pretty bad one as a 25-year old and he was pretty uneven after that until putting together back-to-back strong seasons in 2011 and 2012 as a 29 and then 30 year old. Obviously we'd all like to hope that it won't take Locke that long to put things together, but it doesn't seem fair to damn him for some rough starts as a 23-24 year old.
McPherson's just nine days older than Locke, but his career looks much different. He was drafted by Dave Littlefield in the 14th round of the 2007 draft. Because he spent a year at a community college, he was drafted after his freshman year at Alabama and as a result, sent to the GCL instead of the NY/Penn League, where he was promoted after a few starts. He was mostly unimpressive in 2008 with State College and 2009 with West Virginia, but when he repeated the Sally League in 2010 his strikeout rate exploded and he got onto the radar as a fringe prospect. He went to Bradenton in 2011 and made 12 starts where he put up a silly 10.0 K/BB ratio (7.5 K/9, 0.8 BB/9) before being promoted to Altoona, where he made 16 generally strong starts. He stayed in Altoona to start the year last year because of an early season injury, made nine starts, went to Indianapolis and dominated in three starts, and found himself in Pittsburgh. He made seven relief appearances and three starts for the Pirates. His relief work was good and his first two starts weren't, but his last start of the year saw him throw six shutout innings against the Reds, striking out five, walking one, and scattering four hits.
If you asked me to pick between a lefty with a decent fastball, a curve, and a change that can keep the ball on the ground vs. a righty with flyball tendencies with decent fastball command and not much else, I'd think it was a no-brainer and I'd go with the lefty. If you asked me to pick between Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson, I'd say that I want to give McPherson a shot because Locke's big league work thus far hasn't impressed me all that much.