The Pittsburgh Pirates are famous for their talented core of young outfielders, but diehard baseball fans have also celebrated the long-awaited major league debuts of top pitching prospects Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow this season. Both prospects are among the best young pitchers in baseball, and should join Gerrit Cole as one of the top rotations in the majors in future years.
They need to make room for those two, though. According to Pirates beat writer Rob Biertempfel, the Pirates are looking to trade veteran pitchers Jon Niese and Jeff Locke to open a spot in the rotation for Glasnow, who made his major league debut on July 7. Niese and Locke are both lefthanders with multiple years of club control remaining, but have posted ERAs over 5.00 this season.
Niese’s status on the trade block dates back to before the All-Star break, when Stephen J. Nesbitt of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted that several scouts would be on hand for his final start of the first half. The audition didn’t go well, however. Niese gave up five runs on eight hits in 3 2/3 innings and was moved to the bullpen to start the second half. The Tigers got a close look at him in April, when Niese allowed four runs (three earned) in six innings at Comerica Park for his first win of the season.
The Pirates acquired Niese last winter in a trade with the New York Mets, sending second baseman Neil Walker to Queens in exchange for the 29-year-old lefthander. Niese had a 3.91 ERA and 3.84 FIP in over 1,000 innings pitched with the Mets, but has struggled to a 5.13 ERA and 5.49 FIP in 18 starts with the Pirates this season. He relies on a four-pitch mix, with a low-90s fastball, cutter, curveball, and changeup. He is in the final guaranteed season of a five-year contract he signed with the Mets in 2012, but has team options for the 2017 and 2018 seasons totaling $21 million.
Locke, a 28-year-old lefty who has spent his entire major league career in Pittsburgh, will start in Niese’s place on Monday against the Brewers. Locke has a 4.34 ERA and 4.32 FIP in 618 career innings, but his results have been very inconsistent. He was named an All-Star in 2013 when he went 8-2 with a 2.15 ERA in the first half, but posted a 6.12 ERA in the second half. His ERA has climbed in the three years since, elevating from 3.91 in 2014 to 5.26 in 101 innings this season. He did not appear in any of the Pirates’ games against the Tigers in April.
Locke’s peripherals have been a bit more consistent, but has never been much of a strikeout artist. He has a career 16.4 percent strikeout rate, but that figure has dropped to just 12.2 percent in 2016. He relies primarily on a fastball-changeup combination, and has ditched his curveball for a rarely-used slider this season. Locke is making $3.025 million in 2016, his first season of arbitration. He has two more years of club control before he hits free agency after the 2018 season.
Trade prices will be expensive at this year’s deadline given the lack of quality arms available, but Niese and Locke should be two of the cheaper options on the market. The low-budget Pirates would be glad to out from under either player’s contract, whether that’s the rest of Niese’s $9 million owed this year or Locke’s final two years of arbitration. Neither pitcher has performed well either, so suitors will be buying low in hopes of getting a decent innings eater with limited upside.