Welcome to Bradenton, Florida for Pirates Spring Training 2013.
Next up in my series of reports from my time spent here in Bucco camp: the battle for the team's 5th starting spot.
The Pirates starting rotation has four of their five season opening spots about locked up, mostly due to Francisco Liriano's bizarre offseason injury to his non-throwing shoulder and Charlie Morton's rehab from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow which will continue into the summer.
Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington confirmed that on Sunday.
"We've got the four starters that are relatively set in the rotation in AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, and Jeff Karstens," Huntington said. "James McDonald has got to do some things to hold down that spot, just like Jeff Karstens does. But those are four guys we feel very good about that can keep us in ballgames and give this offense a chance to score enough runs to win."
The Pirates are hoping an obvious #5 emerges in the month ahead.
"The fifth spot is between a handful of guys," Huntington continued. "Our goal at some point this summer is to have too many starting pitchers. Which you never have, but that's our goal. You look at Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson, two young guys that we're very excited about; the trade for Jeanmar Gomez; if we can get Jonathan Sanchez on the right track. Now you get Charlie Morton and Francisco Liriano healthy. And Phil Irwin is a guy that we've liked for our future as a potential starter for us, and he's had a good camp so far. You can never have enough pitching, it's a game of attrition."
Realistically, it looks like Locke v McPherson for the job, with Locke having an edge in that he'd be giving the rotation a second left-hander out of the gates. Locke also has a larger body of work of Major League experience, if only a ten start to three advantage.
The 25-year old Locke, whose four-seam fastball averages about 91mph, slows it down with both a curveball and a change-up at about 80mph. The curve was his choice 44% of the time when ahead in the count in 2012. He actually had better splits against right-handed batters, with righties hitting .255 against him and lefties .297. He did strike out 11 of 40 lefties faced, however. His was a strikeout-per-inning guy in 2012. He had a high BABIP of .313 indicating a bit of bad luck, and his xFIP of 3.7 suggests an above average future performance.
In 2012 Locke was called up from AAA and made five starts in September with the big club. In four of those five starts he had one inning that did him in, allowing three or more runs in the frame.
In his second Grapefruit League start in 2013, that 'big inning' tagged Locke again as the Boston Red Sox jumped out to a 3-0 first inning lead Friday at JetBlue Park in Ft. Myers before Locke settled in to throw scoreless second and third frames.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle is aware of the trend, but not overly concerned.
"It has been one of the little rocks in his shoe last year when you look at the starts, the big inning," Hurdle said. "At the end of the season, the last game he pitched, he went six innings and went through the meat of the [Atlanta] order twice in key situations to nail it down and get his first victory. [That] wasn't a situation he had a lot of similar situations with in the minor leagues, so we'll see. It's the big leagues, sometimes it just happens a few times in a row where maybe that inning gets away with you. If it's the same reason, maybe you get too quick [or] you lose a little focus, those are some things I think he'll mature through."
Focus may have been an issue on Friday for Locke under the lights of 'Fenway South' in Ft Myers against a Boston team he grew up routing for in New Hampshire.
"We're used to getting up at the crack of dawn every day and being home by 3pm," Locke said after the game. "The game's at 7:05 it's like, 'holy smokes!' But it feels good to get back again. There was a little nervousness in there. If you're not nervous you just ain't right. I'm from New Hampshire, grew up a Red Sox fan. To come out here and pitch against them under the lights in a replica Fenway, it's a pretty cool experience. All in all, I felt good. There's a few pitches I wish I could have back in the first inning or so, but it's all about learning and getting better every time out."
Kyle McPherson, also age 25, made three starts in late September of 2012 after starting the year on the DL with right shoulder inflammation and building his way back up from AA Altoona. His 3.68 ERA (14.2 IP / 6ER) in his three Major League starts included six scoreless innings against the Cincinnati Reds in an eventual 2-1 Pirates victory.
McPherson is known for his control, with a four-seam fastball at about 94mph, as well as a curveball that drops in at 78mph and a change-up around 84mph. His curve is his preferred out pitch as well.
McPherson last threw on Sunday against Houston, and pitched two solid innings before surrendering 4 ER thanks to two walks and a few strange hits: a topped roller for an infield single and a wind-blown pop-fly double to deep short-stop that cleared the bases after McPherson left at his pitch count.
"I felt good," McPherson said. "Definitely a cold day, but it was good to be out there on the bump again. Stuff was good, it was good work. A couple of calls that could have gone either way, but walks can cost you. All in all, it was a good outing. Just working on angle, keeping the ball down in the zone and execution of pitches. It's go time, nothing to hold back, it's all on you now. This early in spring it's just locating the fastball, getting the two-seamer in the zone. I'm getting a lot of swings on that. Change-up is a good mix pitch that I use to get back in the count. I don't really focus on trying to spin too many curveballs, I let that pitch slowly develop over the course of the spring and into the season. The curve is the out-pitch for the most part. Today it worked for me, I was able to throw it for strikes and balls to get check swings on it. I'm pleased with where it's at right now. I'll let the fastball and two-seamer take priority as well as the change-up before I worry about that pitch."
"The first two innings very effective, then got the swing over the top that rolls in the infield and extends things," said manager Clint Hurdle of McPherson's Sunday performance. "Kyle's a tough kid, we all know that. Good makeup kid with good stuff, so we got to see some of that stuff play out. Getting into that third inning his pitch count got him to the point we needed to get him. He's a tough kid, we like him. I like the composure he had throughout the game today."
McPherson said despite the competition, he and Locke are on speaking terms.
"He's a good friend of mine," the Mobile, Alabama native said of Locke. "Great guy, great athlete, great pitcher. It's a fun competition. He pulls for me just as much as I pull for him, but when it comes down to it we'll let them make the decision. "