PITTSBURGH -- During his time in the bullpen this year, Jeff Locke learned about the disciplined routines that make good relievers successful night after night. He learned about the camaraderie of Pittsburgh's relief corps and came to appreciate the ability to go from idle observer to game-on-the-line pitcher
The most important thing Locke learned, though?
"Pitch better," he said.
Locke pitched his way out of the Bucs' rotation this year and perhaps out of their plans. Part of Pittsburgh's starting staff the past four years, he was moved to the bullpen late this season. The left-hander could be retained as a multi-inning reliever or for rotation depth, but he will enter the offseason as a candidate to be non-tendered.
Locke is eligible for salary arbitration and projected by MLBTradeRumors.com to earn $4.2 million next season. When Pirates officials publicly discuss their 2017 rotation plans, his name doesn't come up in the conversation. Even Locke is uncertain.
"Until told otherwise, you assume that you will come back here," Locke said. "But I understand the reality of the situation, the business side of the game, maybe the direction the team wants to head after this season. … As for me, I don't really know what's going to happen."
Locke, who will turn 29 next month, went 9-8 with a 5.44 ERA over 19 starts and 11 relief appearances. He led Pittsburgh in innings with 127 1/3, despite making only nine appearances after Aug. 3. Nine of his first 15 outings were quality starts -- including a shutout in Miami on May 30 -- but four particularly rough starts during that stretch pulled his ERA up to 5.12.
It was representative of the inconsistency that has often plagued Locke. He made the All-Star team in 2013 then posted a 6.12 ERA in the second half. He recorded a 4.23 ERA over 51 starts in 2014-15, up-and-down production but still passable for a No. 5 starter who never missed a turn.
Locke tweaked his delivery over the winter, hoping to improve his control, but the results didn't follow. In early August, the Pirates moved him to the bullpen for good. He worked sporadically, cleaning up short starts or taking over in extra innings.
"It was just: 'We've got to get him out of that right now,'" Locke said. "I'm always going to see myself as a starter until I'm in a bullpen pitching in some kind of role."
His arm responded like a starter, too. Locke missed time in September with shoulder discomfort. He'd work an inning or two one night, then pitching coach Ray Searage would approach him the next afternoon and ask if he was available.
"I'd look at him like he had five heads," Locke said. "It's not easy. Monday night doesn't mean anything if you can't do it on Tuesday. That's what's so impressive about it."
As the season wound down and the Pirates fell out of playoff contention, Locke did his best to avoid thinking about his future. Ultimately, the decision is out of his control. All he can do is make the most of his next opportunity, whether it's with the Pirates or elsewhere.
"I'd love to come back here and play next year. If that's not the case, there's availability in other areas," Locke said. "That's what the great opportunity of this game is. If you have an arm, you have a pair of spikes, you have a track record, somebody will give you a shot."
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, read his blog and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.