Any general manager will say there’s no such thing as too much pitching depth, and surely manager Clint Hurdle won’t complain about having to bump someone from the starting five.
But the question remains as to who gets bumped and where he goes, given that several current Pirates pitchers are out of options and would have to clear waivers before returning to the minor leagues. That means those pitchers would likely end up in the bullpen well before they’d be designated for assignment or optioned back to the minors.
However, that’s not the case with Jeff Locke, which means Locke will likely be the odd man out when Liriano makes his return.
That’s a shame because Locke has pitched brilliantly for a Pirates team that has desperately needed quality outings. Since being called up in early June, he’s started six games and has pitched into the eighth inning three times, never giving up more than three earned runs in any start.
His earned run average currently sits at 3.08, a number that would be much lower if it weren’t for a poor outing in early May when Locke was making a spot start.
Unfortunately for Locke, solid play and quality pitching aren't always enough to earn a player a permanent roster spot. Indeed, the team sent Brandon Cumpton back to the minors last week despite Cumpton giving up only two runs in his last 14 innings pitched.
His exit cleared a roster spot for Gerrit Cole, the team's injured ace who came off the disabled list and promptly gave up five runs in four innings in a loss to the New York Mets on June 28.
Locke could be headed for the same fate whenever Liriano makes his return to the roster, according to Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
No matter how well Jeff Locke pitches – and he’s pitching very well – there’s a chance he will simply not remain in the rotation. It’s simple math: when Francisco Liriano is healthy, the Pirates have six starting pitchers vying for five spots and Locke is the one pitcher who has options.
Simply put, any of the other starting pitchers for the Pirates would have to go unclaimed on waivers by the other 29 Major League clubs before being sent back to the minors. In the case of pitchers Edinson Volquez and Vance Worley, that’s a risk the front office probably doesn’t want to take.
That’s why Locke is almost certainly the odd man out this time around, and it’s only because he’s the last player with options remaining.
There are a bevy of alternative theories and lineup switches that could happen if the team really wanted to keep Locke in the majors.
The Pirates could send Worley to the bullpen despite the fact that he has pitched to a 2.28 ERA in four starts since being called up in June. The same could be said for Volquez despite the fact that he has given up only two runs in the last 21 innings over his last three starts.
There’s no such thing as having too much starting pitching in Major League Baseball, which any general manager will attest to. And as in any season, there are bound to be more injuries and call-ups in the second half of the season.
Even if Locke is sent back down to the minors, there’s a good chance he might not be there long, according to Sawchik:
He’s upgraded his status in my eyes, and even if he is sent down to Triple-A, he’ll likely be back at some point after the All-Star break. He’s certainly in the club’s long-term plans with Liriano and Volquez as free agents after the season.