Fairly or not, much of the fan perception of the Nate McLouth trade is going to be tied to Jeff Locke’s progression through the minor leagues. When he came to the Pirates, he was viewed as a good but raw prospect who was struggling with control issues in Myrtle Beach, the Braves Carolina League affiliate. He got off to a rough start with Lynchburg, but he was very good in August and September, matching 35 strikeouts against just 10 walks in 46 2/3 innings.
His strikeout rate did drop with Lynchburg, but the Pirates’ minor league staff has been known to force pitchers to focus on throwing their fastballs for strikes before working their other pitches back in. That practice could account for both the drop in strikeouts and his ugly start at Lynchburg. Whatever the case, his strong finish reaffirms him as a very solid pitching prospect, though he’s obviously still a long ways away from Pittsburgh.
July 2010 Update: Locke was a bit of a mess when he came to the Pirates from the Braves last year with his walks jumping up to 5.1 per nine innings with High-A Myrtle Beach. The Pirates worked a bit on ironing out his delivery to improve his command and it worked with the walks dropping down to two per nine, but his strikeouts tailing a bit as well. As a result, he went back to Bradenton this year and has looked great with 8.7 K/9 and just 1.7 BB/9. His ERA is a little higher than you might expect (3.54) for a guy pitching so well and repeating a level, which is a factor of his fairly high line drive rate and hit rate.
He’s certainly earned his promotion this year. As always, it’s just nice to see pitchers improve, a phenomenon that was more or less absent from the Pirates’ system for the better part of a decade before Neal Huntington and Kyle Stark took over. July 2010 rank: 3
January 2011 update: Again, the drop in rank isn’t meant to be an insult. Locke was absolutely excellent in both Bradenton and Altoona last year (combined 8.7 K/9 rate 1.6 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9, which show his 3.56 ERA might be deceivingly high). In the Wilbur Miller profile linked above, he mentions that he’s a similar prospect to Rudy Owens at this point with his low 90s fastball, though his offspeed stuff is supposed to be better than Owens. His great year earned him a spot on the 40-man roster and it should get him at least to Indianapolis in 2011. Depending on spring training, he may even start there to open the year. January 2011 rank: 4