Jeff Locke is fifth starter, for now, as Pirates set opening-day roster

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BRADENTON, Fla. -- Consistency is king in baseball, and it earned Jeff Locke a spot in the Pirates rotation to start the season.

Locke was named the team's fifth starter Wednesday, and the Pirates all but set their opening-day roster by trimming it to 26 players.

Assuming Brandon Inge starts the season on the disabled list -- something general manager Neal Huntington said was likely -- the Pirates will not need to make any other roster moves before first pitch Monday against the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park.

In a four-man battle for what eventually turned into two open spots in the rotation, Locke, a left-hander, was never the most impressive player on the mound in terms of the quality of his pitches. That was Kyle McPherson, whom the Pirates optioned to Class AAA Indianapolis.

But Locke was steady.

In six outings this spring, five of them starts, Locke posted a 3.38 ERA. And he never allowed more than three earned runs, something McPherson, Jeanmar Gomez and Jonathan Sanchez, the No. 4 starter, can't claim.

"There's no outing in particular for me that really stood out above all the other ones, and there's no outing that was so bad that stood out," Locke said. "I feel like most of them were pretty consistent."

That and Locke's body of work in 2012 between the Pirates and Indianapolis made him the front office's choice. Huntington said management was impressed with the quality of Locke's pitches and his ability to attack hitters on both sides of the plate.

"There were some things within each outing, some mistakes within each outing that we can overcome," Huntington said.

"There's also some quality of stuff within each outing that allows us to feel -- as we project him pitching against playoff-caliber teams -- that allows us to feel comfortable that he's going to have some success."

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said he has been impressed with Locke's development as a starter, adding he believes Locke has grown more than any player he had in camp.

And he's still developing, Hurdle said, noting his changeup is still coming around.

"When that thing arrives," Hurdle said, "I think he's going to be a guy that has real weapons."

Locke's spot in the rotation could be tenuous as three pitchers -- Jeff Karstens (right shoulder tendinitis), Francisco Liriano (broken non-throwing arm) and Charlie Morton (Tommy John surgery) -- are rehabilitating form injuries. And top prospect Gerrit Cole could join the club as early as June.

"You just hope you get that opportunity, and it's presented itself," Locke said. "We'll see how far it goes."

Entering spring training, McPherson appeared to have the inside track on a starting job because of his strong September with the Pirates.

In 10 appearances, McPherson had a 2.73 ERA. And he appeared sharper early this spring than he did in 2012.

But McPherson struggled in Grapefruit League games, going 0-3 with an 8.43 ERA. He allowed four runs or more in four of his six starts.

"He has major league-caliber pitches," Huntington said. "It's just the consistency and the command, the challenges. It was one of the toughest decisions we had."

In addition to McPherson, outfielder Alex Presley and shortstop Jordy Mercer were optioned to Indianapolis. Relievers Mike Zagurski, Vin Mazzaro and Ryan Reid, outfielder Felix Pie and catchers Carlos Paulino and Lucas May were reassigned to minor league camp.

Several of those players performed well enough to earn a spot on the major league roster.

"As we talked from the get-go, if there's not clear separation, sometimes things out of their control play in," Huntington said.

The Pirates kept Jose Tabata -- instead of Presley and Pie -- because he is out of options and is still owed $12 million of a six-year, $15 million contract he signed in 2011.

Presley, who hit .304 this spring, had one option remaining, and Pie, who hit .318, is playing on a minor league contract.

Tabata was hitting .260 before the team's decision Wednesday.

Gomez is also out of options and will be on the team's opening-day roster in the bullpen, though he was not particularly sharp in games this spring. Reid, who allowed one earned run in seven innings, is pitching on a minor league contract.

Mercer's fate was sealed when the Pirates acquired veteran backup infielder John McDonald last week.

The Pirates prefer to carry three players capable of playing shortstop in the major leagues -- two with the Pirates and one in Indianapolis.

Spring training report

Game: Twins 7, Pirates 4.

Starter: A.J. Burnett -- 3 innings, 4 hits, 2 runs, 0 walks, 2 strikeouts.

Top batter: Pedro Alvarez -- 4 for 5, 1 HR, 3 RBIs.

Of note: Former teammates in New York, A.J. Burnett and Russell Martin did not play together this year in a Grapefruit League game until Wednesday.

News of the day: Pedro Alvarez continued his recent hot streak at the plate, blasting his second home run of the spring well over the boardwalk in right field. In his past eight games, Alvarez is 11 of 27 (.407) with 2 home runs, 8 RBIs and 21 total bases. "It's good to be able to try to transition that over to the season," Alvarez said. "And just to have that good feeling." Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said spring-training statistics are rarely a good barometer for regular-season success. But for some players, the confidence that can come with spring success is a big boost. In a few days, Hurdle will fill out his opening-day lineup. Asked if he would like to have Alvarez as his cleanup hitter, Hurdle paused, then grinned. "I am really feeling that," he said.

Notes: The Pirates set a spring-training attendance record, breaking the mark set in 2011. In 16 home games, the Pirates drew 93,433 fans to McKechnie Field, an average of 5,840. In 2011, 88,033 fans came out for 16 home games, an average of 5,502. McKechnie Field was renovated before this spring to include an outfield boardwalk, increasing the capacity of the 90-year-old ballpark. ... The Pirates committed three errors Wednesday. They have committed 39 errors this spring, the second most behind the New York Yankees (44). ... To make room for Brandon Inge and Jonathan Sanchez on the 40-man roster, the Pirates designated for assignment minor league infielder Clint Robinson and right-handed pitcher Hunter Strickland.

Going north

Projected 2013 opening-day roster for the Pirates:

Starting pitchers: A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jonathan Sanchez, Jeff Locke.

Relief pitchers: Jason Grilli (closer), Mark Melancon, Jared Hughes, Tony Watson, Justin Wilson, Chris Leroux, Jeanmar Gomez.

Catchers: Russell Martin, Michael McKenry.

Infielders: Garrett Jones, Gaby Sanchez, Neil Walker, Clint Barmes, Pedro Alvarez, John McDonald, Josh Harrison, • -Brandon Inge.

Outfielders: Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Travis Snider, Jose Tabata.

• -Expected to be placed on 15-day disabled list to start the season.

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Michael Sanserino:, 412-263-1722 and Twitter: @msanserino. First Published March 28, 2013 5:00 AM


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