It's not so much that September is coming and time is running out for the Pirates' faltering players. It's that October is approaching for the team.
October is a word not often used around the Pirates, but it's going to happen. The task is at hand is to not just get there, but to succeed in the postseason. Manager Clint Hurdle has to make decisions quickly on two regulars: starting pitcher Jeff Locke and first baseman Garrett Jones.
The decisions are easy: Both need to be removed, at least temporarily, from regular roles on the team.
Some people are saying Locke is a repeat of James McDonald. Both had exceptional first halves -- McDonald last year -- and both began a plunge from very good to very bad almost as soon as the second half began. But Locke is no McDonald. He's looking more and more like Zach Duke, who, like Locke, was the quintessential crafty left-hander.
Duke, you may remember, was a sensation in the second half of the 2005 season -- 8-2 with a 1.81 ERA. He never approached those numbers again.
As Duke was one of the best pitchers in the National League in the second half of the 2005 season, Locke was that in the first half of 2013. He was 8-2 with a 2.15 ERA and a .202 BAA. He was named to the All-Star team and richly deserved it.
In his past six starts, his ERA is 8.09 and his opponents' batting average in the second half is a Zach-Dukeish .340. His walks per nine innings, always high, have jumped from 3.88 to 6.18.
Based on that, there's only one decision for Hurdle must make: Is Locke's removal from the rotation temporary or permanent?
The options are:
• Jeanmar Gomez, who could take Locke's next start and give the team five innings and turn the game over to an enlarged post-Sept. 1 bullpen.
• Brandon Cumpton, who has pitched well in three spot starts this season.
• Kris Johnson, who is 10-4 with a team-leading 2.39 ERA at Indianapolis, and who gave the Pirates six strong innings of relief earlier this month in an emergency call-up.
Gomez is the best option. Cumpton is a borderline prospect, Johnson made his MLB debut at age 28. Pedigree rules and that belongs to Gomez.
The notion that Gomez is more valuable in long relief makes no sense. Long relief is the last man in the bullpen and most often enters that game when it is out of hand. Gomez is too good for that. In eight starts this year, he has a 2.80 ERA, a 1.05 WHIP and a .206 batting average against. Unless general manager Neal Huntington can find something better in the trade market, Gomez is the obvious replacement for Locke.
As for Jones, this morsel of information is particularly interesting: When drafted in 2007 by the Los Angeles Dodgers, Andrew Lambo was a first baseman. He has not played the position extensively as a professional, but has a background in it and he has played it this year.
Unless he's an absolute butcher, give him a chance at first base over Jones against right-handed pitching. With Marlon Byrd arriving tonight, Lambo is going to lose his starting position in the outfield just when he was starting to show potential.
He's a better option than Jones, who is batting .119 with a .410 OPS in August. Jones has a track record that says he's better -- an .804 OPS in July, a very good season in 2012 -- which means if Lambo shows he can't get the job done, then short of a trade, Jones merits another look some time in September.
For the moment, though, he's not producing, not coming close to producing. Lambo hit 32 minor league home runs this season. That number means little in MLB but it is tantalizing. He deserves a chance to show what he can do, particular in light of Jones' ineffectiveness.