Two years ago, things looked to be headed in the right direction for San Diego. True, they were coming off a 91-loss 2011 season as they transitioned out of the Adrian Gonzalez / Heath Bell era, but the signs were at least pointing the right way. Keith Law ranked them as the #1 farm system in baseball, saying “in terms of total future value of players likely to play significant roles in the big leagues, they’re ahead of everyone else,” and “they are well-positioned to compete even with modest major league payrolls during the next five to six years,” thanks in no small part to the rewards reaped from the trades of Gonzalez and Mat Latos. Cameron Maybin had finally shown some of the promise that had made him a centerpiece of the Miguel Cabrera trade by putting up over 4 WAR, and so the Padres gave him a five-year extension. Nick Hundley took a big step forward with a .356 wOBA and 3.3 WAR, so San Diego bought out most of his remaining team control years too.
Perhaps most exciting of all was Cory Luebke, coming off a smashing debut in which he’d struck out 154 in 139.2 innings while walking only 44, good for a 2.93 FIP and approximately 2 WAR. Though he’d had just a few weeks more than one full year of service time, the Padres locked him up as well, giving him a deal worth a guaranteed $12 million over four years, covering 2012-15, and with club options for 2016 and ’17 worth potentially $17.5 million more. For a 2007 supplemental first rounder, who had signed for only $515,000, it was a nice way to be suddenly set for life. For the Padres, it was a relatively low-risk way to maintain cost certainty over one of the few homegrown pitchers who had worked out; as Mike Axisa recapped here at the time, the deal was easily a win/win for both sides.
Two years later, the Padres know what they’re getting out of that $12 million, assuming the options aren’t picked up: 31 innings. Luebke blew out his elbow after just five 2012 starts, and an expected 2013 return never happened. Now, he’s going to miss all of 2014 and most or all of 2015 after reportedly injuring his elbow again, requiring a second Tommy John surgery. It’s a huge blow for San Diego, since their investment has now evaporated, and it’s an even bigger hit to Luebke, who faces long odds to ever throw another big league pitch.
Coming back after a second zipper is relatively rare, but not unheard of. Among current pitchers, Chris Capuano, Brian Wilson, and Joakim Soria immediately come to mind as being active — I’m sure there are others — after having the procedure a second time, and Jonny Venters and Daniel Hudson are attempting to make it back. Over the last decade or so, Al Reyes, Doug Brocail, Hong-Chih Kuo, Darren Dreifort, and Jason Isringhausen all had careers with varying levels of success after going under the knife multiple times. Of course, there’s a bit of a survivor’s bias in naming names like this, because there’s not really a list to draw from of those who tried and failed, or those who decided to call it a day after the second injury.
Whether or not he ever makes it back, what Luebke does have is that $12 million, and that’s life-changing money for most people. Managed with even the slightest bit of care, that’s plenty for him to be set for life, and that’s an enviable situation considering he doesn’t even turn 29 for another month. It’s also a stark reminder of the risk/reward that comes with signing a contract that early in a career, one that guarantees present earnings at a cost of potential higher future earnings. For example, Clayton Kershaw — and admittedly, this is not a perfect comparison, because Kershaw reached the bigs younger and is something like the best pitcher we’ll ever see — made approximately $1.34 million during his first three full seasons in the big leagues, preferring to go year-to-year with the hopes of making big arbitration numbers and bigger extension numbers. He did just that, of course, but at a considerable personal risk; If his arm had reacted the way Luebke’s has, that $1.34 million (plus his original signing bonus) might have been the only million he’d ever make in the game.
As for San Diego, the loss of Luebke is just another hit against how nice that 2011-12 offseason looked. Maybin is still only going to be 27 this year, but he took a big step back in 2012 (.290 wOBA), then played in only 14 games in 2013 due to injuries to his knee and wrist. Hundley was atrocious in 2012 — dig that .157/.219/.245 — to the point where even a .233/.290/.389 in 2013 looked palatable. And that top 10 list as put together by Law? Besieged by injuries and ineffectiveness, that list is now a mess of might-have-been’s and if-only’s:
1. Casey Kelly, RHP — Tommy John surgery, missed 2013
2. Rymer Liriano, OF — Tommy John surgery, missed 2013
3. Joe Ross, RHP — shoulder trouble, yet to reach High-A
4. Yasmani Grandal, C — PED suspension, ACL/MCL tear
5. Yonder Alonso, 1B — 2.4 WAR in 1,124 plate appearances
6. Jedd Gyorko, 3B — productive MLB second baseman
7. Austin Hedges, C — current top Padres prospect
8. Joe Wieland, RHP — Tommy John surgery, missed 2013
9. Cory Spangenberg, IF — future profile likely as utility player
10. Jaff Decker, RF — DFA’d, then traded
The point here isn’t that prospects sometimes fail or get hurt, because while Bryce Harper and Mike Trout and Manny Machado were atop their teams’ respective lists that winter, so were Gary Brown and Manny Banuelos and Jesus Montero. It’s never an exact science. The point is that a small-market organization that looked to have such a nice young talented and cost-controlled core two years ago has seen little of it work out, despite what was generally viewed as smart trading and appropriate signing of young players, and that’s why this team hasn’t lost fewer than 86 games in any of the last three seasons, and probably is going to have a tough road towards being a contender in 2014.
San Diego still has a nicely-regarded farm system, ranked #9 in Law’s 2014 rankings, as new faces like Matthew Wisler and Max Fried are in the mix, while Kelly and Liriano attempt to rebound from injury, with time yet to make an impact. They still have Andrew Cashner, indirectly because of the Gonzalez deal, and they have Chase Headley, however they decide to get value out of him. But they don’t have Luebke, and they might never again. For a team like the Padres to win, they need investments in young players like Luebke or those like him to pay off, and it just hasn’t happened so well lately.
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