Sunday, November 29, 2009

#14 Jeff Locke

Jeffrey Alan Locke was part of the package that the Braves sent to the Pirates for Nate McLouth this past summer. The 22 year-old lefty (he just celebrated his birthday last week) is a highly touted arm, though his numbers have yet to approach his ballyhoo.

Rated as the #7 prospect in the Brave system by Baseball America coming into 2009, Locke was considered the number two lefty in their organization, behind only Cole Rohrbough.

Other teams knew of his upside; the Pirates had him on their wish list when the Braves made inquiries about Jay Bay in 2008, and during the last offseason, the Padres wanted him included in any potential Jake Peavy talks.

That's a lotta love for a New Hampshire kid that hasn't reached AA ball yet.

Born in New Concord, he pitched scholastically for A. Crosby Kennett High School. Going by the moniker of "The Redstone Rocket", (he hails from the Redstone neighborhood), the 6'2", 180 pound hurler was the first selection of the Braves in the second round in the 2006 draft.

He signed for $675K quickly enough to get some work with the GCL Braves. In 2007, he was moved to Danville of the Appalachian League.

Locke rolled through the Low A League, posting a 7-1 slate with a 2.66 ERA. He struck out 74 batters in 61 innings and walked just eight, with a WHIP of 0.918. The accolades rolled in.

He was rated the eighth-best prospect in the Braves farm system and the fifth-best prospect in the Appalachian League by Baseball America following the season, and named to their post-season All-Star team. The Braves picked him as the Danville Pitcher of the Year. Pretty heady stuff for a 19 year old.

In 2008, Locke moved up one more rung, to Class A Rome in the Sally League. He went 5-12 with a 4.06 ERA, but his peripherals were still decent. Locke more than doubled his workload, going 139-2/3 innings, with 113 Ks and 38 walks, with a 1.314 WHIP. As a younger guy, he stood his ground, and BA ranked him as the #14 prospect in the South Atlantic League.

He entered 2009 as the Braves #7 overall prospect, and was promoted one more step, to High A Myrtle Beach of the Carolina League. Locke hit his first bump in the road there.

Struggling with his control, he was 1-4 with a 5.52 ERA in 10 starts. The ability to miss bats still showed, as he collected 43 whiffs in 45-2/3 innings, but his command disappeared, as he walked 26 guys and ran up a WHIP of 1.599.

Then, on June 3rd, the Braves traded Locke to the Pirates along with Charlie Morton and Gorkys Hernández in exchange for Nate McLouth. The Bucs assigned him to the Lynchburg Hillcats, also in the Carolina League.

Locke pitched better with the change of scenery, going 4-4 with a 4.08 ERA, and his command returned. His K's dropped to 56 in 81-2/3 innings, but his walks were cut down to 18, just about two free passes per nine innings.

He's still raw, and the Pirates are tinkering with his mechanics. It's also probable that they had him throwing more heaters rather than mixing his stuff; the first commandment for young pitchers in the Buc organization is developing fastball command before working on the soft stuff.

Locke throws a sinking fastball in the 91-94 MPH range, has a plus curve that he delivers in the mid-70's, and is working on a change up. He keeps his pitches down, and has had very good groundball and home run rates throughout his career.

One red flag was his .360 opponent's ball-in-play average in 2009. That's high, and could be rooted in any one of several areas: command issues, a high ratio of fastballs per Pirate instructions, or a leather-challenged infield at Lynchburg. It's most likely a combination of the three, but still bears watching.

The other problem is repeating his delivery, and that's the mechanical issue the Pirate staff is working on now. It's not an unusual problem, especially with guys that were drafted straight out of high school. That may have been his bugaboo at Myrtle Beach, as an erratic motion leads to control problems.

He's been young at every level he's worked, and is still honing his craft. Locke's projection is as a number 2 or 3 man in a MLB rotation, and he's still on track to reach the show by 2012-13. But like virtually all high school draftees, it takes a little longer to get it together, and continued improvement is never a sure thing.

Locke has been on a level-per-year track, and we expect that to continue in 2010 with him moving up to Altoona.

(Next - #13 Bryan Morris)

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