Thursday, August 29, 2013

About the final preseason game ... will Byron Leftwich even make it through without getting hurt?

Man, preseason NFL football is just about unwatchable any more ... but we'll watch some of tonight's Steelers-Panthers game to see how rookie QB Landry Jones looks, and final roster battles, and to see whether Byron Leftwich* gets hurt again, and to see, what?  How our guys who will be looking for jobs next week do against their guys who will be looking for jobs?

It's not so long ago that NFL fans watching the third and fourth pre-season games were able to get a better feel for how their teams were shaping up for the regular season. Steelers' broadcaster and former right tackle Tunch Ilkin, who played for Chuck Noll in the 1980s, noted as much in a conversation he had this week with the Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette.

"In his time," Bouchette wrote of Ilkin, "the final preseason game tonight would have been the most important, when coaches played their first teams into the fourth quarter to have them ready to open the season. The starters would play about one quarter in the first game, close to a half in the second and third and most of the fourth.

"I liked that," Ilkin said. "I felt I was more game-ready for that first regular-season game. Usually, that first game, if it's 1 o'clock outside, it's going to be hot. I wanted to know in my mind that I could play 60 minutes in the heat."

"I loved the old way. I understand why they do it this way, because of the injuries. If you get hurt in the last preseason game, you don't have a lot of time to heal up. If you get hurt in that third preseason game, now you have two weeks to get ready."

Joey Porter's Pit Bulls see it this way: In recent years, the Steelers haven't always looked ready for the regular season when it kicks off. Remember the 2011 debacle in Baltimore? Typically, in recent years, even with early wins, the team hasn't rounded into form until the third, fourth of fifth game.

It would be nice if they got off to a fast start this year. Based on what we've seen thus far in the pre-season, though, for what that's worth, it would be a stretch to say they look ready for prime time.

That's it, Fort Pitt.

*What? Whaddya mean, Byron Leftwich's not even on the team?

Whither Jeff Locke?

Just six weeks ago, Jeff Locke was on the National League All-Star team.  Now, he appears to be this year's James MacDonald -- a sterling first half of the season, and a collapse (for no apparent reason) in the second half.

Locke's been stuck at nine wins since July 21st, his only victory since the All-Star game, which was July 16th. In his last six starts, Locke has an 8.10 ERA, and hitters are batting a whopping .388 against him.

It will be interesting to see whether Locke somehow becomes eligible for the post-season roster.

In a clever bit of roster engineering (a "paper" roster move), Pirates general manager Neil Huntington optioned Locke to their Class AA minor league team, the Altoona Curve, along with catcher Tony Sanchez, to clear space on the 25-man roster for the two newly acquired players, right fielder Marlon Byrd and catcher John Buck, who were picked up from the Mets in a trade for a (very) young shortstop prospect and a player to be named later.

To digress for a moment, but that player to be named later? It could be somebody currently injured (Travis Snyder?).  Let's hope it's not 19-year-old pitching prospect Tyler Glasnow,.whom Baseball America recently described as "the most unhittable pitcher in the minors, and it's not even close.".

By sending Locke to Altoona, he will not be eligible to rejoin the major league club until Monday, Sept. 2. Major League Baseball rules stipulate playoff rosters must be set by Sept. 1. The rules are arcane, fuzzy and open to some interpretation, but it appears the only way Locke would be able to pitch in the playoffs would be as a replacement for an injured player.

For all we know, Locke himself has been injured. He didn't even get to pitch in the All-Star game because of what was reported as a minor back injury (lower back strain, spasm or discomfort). Although he's had one good outing since then, he hasn't been the same pitcher he was in the first half of the season, when he was 9-2 with a 2.11 ERA.

At his best, a young Tom Glavine?
If Locke is not hurt, our suggestion for him is to study video of Atlanta Braves great Tom Glavine. At his best, that's who Jeff Locke reminds us of, Tom Glavine.

At this point, it makes sense for Jeanmar Gomez to replace Locke in the rotation, and the Pirates may also call on current minor leaguers Chris Johnson and Brandon Cumpton. both of whom have pitched well in spot situations for the big-league club this year. Gomez has been excellent all season, no matter the situation. He deserves a spot in the rotation, and has for some time.

If the Pirates go with a four-man rotation for the playoffs, it shapes up as Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett, Charlie Morton and Jeanmar Gomez. As unlikely as it seemed six months ago, that could be a very competitive rotation.

Also, if the Pirates are serious about limiting rookie Gerrit Cole's innings, now might be the perfect time to transition him to the bullpen (although he's never pitched in relief).  It would be interesting to have a 100-mph fireballer available to pitch the fifth, sixth or seventh innings in advance of Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli, who is on track to return soon. Now that could be a shutdown bullpen.

If the bats start coming around, and they could ...

Outfield Shuffle
With left-fielder Starling Marte on the disabled list for almost two weeks, it will be interesting to see whether manager Clint Hurdle splits playing time in left field between Jose Tabata and Felix Pie.  Tabata's defense is questionable, at best. Frankly, so his overall talent.

Pie has not been bad at the plate or in the field in the small amount of playing time he's had, and he gives the team a little base-stealing and hit-and-run flexibility on the basepaths.

With Marlon Byrd playing right field every day, it's fair to speculate whether Andrew Lambo (32 minor league home runs this season) may start to take playing time away from Garrett Jones at first base.

Beat 'em, Bucs!