Could the Pittsburgh Pirates Trade Jeff Locke?

As top Pirate pitching prospects Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon continue to dominate at AAA Indianapolis, many are advocating for their promotion to the major league club. The “Super Two” deadline will pass in mid-June, and it seems like an inevitably that they will see time in PNC Park soon. The only question is which member of the Pirates current rotation they will replace.

Assuming that young star Gerrit Cole is a candidate for neither a trade nor demotion, that leaves Jeff Locke, Juan Nicasio, Jonathon Niese, and Francisco Liriano as candidates to, in some capacity, be replaced.

The media has loved to discuss the changes to Jeff Locke’s mechanics. Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage has been a small miracle worker during his time in Pittsburgh, and many wanted to believe that Locke would be his next reclamation project. The numbers, however, are not indicating any big change in Locke’s performance.

Locke’s 2016 velocity numbers are almost identical to his 2015 figures. His groundball rate is identical. His strikeout rate is down. His walk rate is up. Locke’s ERA in 2015 was 4.49, though his FIP was just 3.95. His 2016 ERA is 4.33, with a 4.99 FIP. The major projection systems predict an ERA and FIP in the 4.30 range for the remainder of 2016. The biggest change in Locke’s batted ball numbers are simply that a number of balls that were line drives in 2015 have become fly balls in 2016. Anyone with familiarity in the coding of line drives and fly balls knows that this is almost certainly noise in the early season results.

At best, Locke’s 2016 numbers indicate that he is replicating his 2015 campaign. The reality, however, is that he has likely been worse.

Locke is not a candidate for demotion to AAA, and it is unlikely he would be an asset out of the bullpen. If he is knocked from the rotation, it is unclear where the organization could put him, while still trying to extract some value from the remainder of the $3 million he is owed for the 2016 season.

So, does Jeff Locke have any trade value at all?

He probably has some, but it is truly on the margins.

Per Cot’s Contracts, Jeff Locke is making $3.025 million in 2016. This was the result of an agreement between Locke and the Pirates, avoiding arbitration in the first season Locke was eligible.

Locke is a 28-year-old left-handed starter with two years left of relatively cheap team control. He has been consistent – albeit consistently mediocre – in his time in Pittsburgh, and that stability may be an upgrade in some MLB rotations. Locke’s percentage of pitches thrown in the strike zone has increased each of the past four seasons, reaching a career high 47.6% thus far in 2016. He seems to trust his stuff more, and that certainly profiles as a professional innings eater, at a minimum.

While the Pirates may non-tender Locke this offseason instead of paying him upwards of $5 million in his second year of arbitration, another team may find that Locke is well worth something in the $7-8 million range for the next season and a half. Locke’s third year of arbitration functions effectively as a team option for the 2018 season, and it gives a new team a chance to capture upside, if Locke were to take any leaps forward. The going rate for starting pitching is much pricier than this, and a team could see value in locking in a back-end starter, if they lack a logical pipeline to fill this spot internally.

Jeff Locke was acquired in the infamous Nate McLouth trade. Nate McLouth was sent to Atlanta for Gorkys Hernandez, Charlie Morton, and Locke. This trade, of course, is better known for clearing the center field spot for Andrew McCutchen. It would be fitting if Locke was sent away in a similar fashion, clearing a rotation spot for another budding all-star.

The free agent market for starting pitching after the 2016 season is historically thin – headlined by Andrew Cashner, Mat Latos, and potentially Jaime Garcia or Gio Gonzalez. A midseason Jeff Locke acquisition could function as adding one of the ten best offseason starters. If the Pirates do not trade Locke but choose to not pursue arbitration at the end of the season, the free agent market could bid up his services well beyond what he would make in the next two years otherwise.

While it is unlikely that Locke will return much in a trade, a trade would still represent a positive for the Pirates. Dumping the remainder of his salary, instead of releasing him or paying him to remain in a mop-up role, would likely be a victory for this frugal organization. A Locke trade is not the most likely Pirates rotation move, but it is more viable than many may otherwise realize.

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