It's an honor for Locke, a player more accustomed to starting seasons somewhere in the minors. He's pitched seven seasons scattered throughout the minors and has compiled 799 career innings there.
His arm certainly isn't as young and fresh as others in the Pirates' farm system. But that doesn't mean he'll be rattled when he toes the rubber for the first time against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the first week of the season.
Locke, 25, has been under the bright lights before: He's already pitched 50 innings in the majors spread out over the last two seasons. He's gone 1-6 with a 5.82 earned run average in 10 starts for the team during that span, during which he served mostly as a spot starter for injured teammates.
Serving as a fill-in isn't a new role for Locke, and it's one he's going to reprise at the start of this season. The team was forced to pick between Locke and fellow minor-leaguer Kyle McPherson only because of a myriad of injuries to other candidates.
But that doesn't mean the team isn't counting on him to help the Pirates get a leaping start out of the gate. Should fans be concerned about the back end of an already shaky rotation? Will Locke's success in the minors translate finally into solid innings for the big league club?
Where he came from
The Atlanta Braves drafted Locke out of high school in New Hampshire in the second round of the 2006 amateur draft. The 6'1" southpaw spent three seasons in the Braves' minor league system before coming over to the Pirates in 2009. It was then that Locke started hurling quality innings, compiling just one full season with the team in which he finished with an ERA higher than four runs.
His minor league stat sheet is long and varied: Locke went 51-44 over the span of his seven seasons in the minors, throwing for a 3.60 ERA in 145 games started. Last year alone in Triple-A, Locke started 24 games for the Indians, going 10-5 with a 2.48 ERA. He pitched 141 innings, the third most of his career.
He's also had a solid spring, a time during which he's faced stiff competition for the final spot in the rotation. He started five games for the team, going 2-1 with a 3.38 ERA in 21 innings pitched. His numbers easily eclipsed those of his closest competitor, McPherson, who started six games and went 0-3 with an 8.46 ERA in 22 innings pitched.
Now, he'll be the final starter in a rotation that includes A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald and Jonathan Sanchez, a list full of pitchers with significant major league experience. But Pirates fans have wondered and will soon find out: Is Locke the right man for the job?
Does he belong?
It's no secret the only reason Locke broke camp with the team is because of a long list of injuries before him. Starters Charlie Morton, Jeff Karstens and Francisco Liriano will all start the season on the disabled list because of assorted injuries.
Karstens and Liriano could rejoin the team during the first several weeks of the season, while Morton is expected back from Tommy John surgery at some point in June. And that's not to mention Gerrit Cole, the team's former No. 1 draft pick and most heralded prospect in years. He's expected to be called up to the team sometime in June or July.
So that means that Locke's duration in the rotation could be limited regardless of how well he pitches. It's clear to fans what management thinks of Locke: Nothing more than a filler biding his time until better options arise.
But in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't really matter if Locke belongs in this rotation. As Pittsburgh Steelers fans can tell you, head coach Mike Tomlin is fond of preaching that the standard is the standard. A starter going down is no excuse for the team to falter. The next guy up is expected to fill in with acceptable results. If he doesn't, the role will go to someone who can produce.
That's where Locke is right now. His time in the majors this year might be brief, or he could turn a lot of heads. Regardless, he'll get several opportunities over the next month or so to prove his worth to the team. Even if he does pitch lights out, his season still might include several demotions back down to the minors.
But Locke must embrace this chance for what it is: An opportunity to show management that he belongs in the starting five, even when the other injured candidates come back. It's crucial for Locke to pitch well to further his career, but his performance is also paramount to how fast the team can jump out of the gate when the season starts.
For now, Locke should heed Tomlin's words. The standard is the standard, which, for the Pittsburgh Pirates, isn't saying a whole lot.
Jared Stonesifer has covered the Pittsburgh Pirates for MLB.com on a freelance basis since 2010. He lives in Pittsburgh.
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