Cory Luebke And Difficulties In San Diego

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 LatosCameron 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 CapuanoBrian 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 ReyesDoug BrocailHong-Chih KuoDarren 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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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times and TechGraphs, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.


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A Goat
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A Goat
2 years 4 months ago

This is a good article; it reads like a story. Nice work.

A Drank
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A Drank
2 years 4 months ago

Drank agrees. Enjoyed this.

Slacker George
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Slacker George
2 years 4 months ago

Assuming that San Diego has an insurance policy on his contract, I’m dumbfounded as to why the insurer wouldn’t be more active in requesting/mandating increased diagnostic testing.

Per Luebke’s quote on MLB.com:
“My gut feeling through the rehab process was this didn’t seem right. And when we did the MRI, it was pretty clear what was going on.”

A Dinger
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A Dinger
2 years 4 months ago

You’d think an O’Malley owned team would take better care of it’s pitching.

Melvin
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2 years 4 months ago

It’s O’Malley owned in name only.

batpig
Member
batpig
2 years 4 months ago

The group which includes the O’Malley family purchased the Padres at the end of the 2012 season. So, you know, it seems like a silly comment since they have had virtually no impact on the health of somebody like Leubke.

batpig
Member
batpig
2 years 4 months ago

It’s also a silly commnent since you wiffed on “its” vs. “it’s”.

Bobby Ayala
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Member
2 years 4 months ago

You spelled Luebke and comment incorrectly.

cnote66
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cnote66
2 years 4 months ago

Any thoughts to Joe Wieland contributing this year? Seems SD has a bevy of young arms in the minors that could be ready for their cup of coffee at the end of this year. Wieland was once a top-10 guy, but seems to be off the radar completely.

jsd11
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jsd11
2 years 4 months ago

Even assuming the options are bought out, the 12 million includes Leubke’s 2015 season salary. Your statement that the Padres received 31 innings for their 12 million investment is not correct.

mike wants wins
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mike wants wins
2 years 4 months ago

I hope we aren’t reading this article about the Twins in 2 years….

cs3
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cs3
2 years 4 months ago

I dont understand why teams dont give every single one of their pitchers a mandatory elbow/shoulder MRI at least twice a year. Cost cannot possibly be a factor, so whats the problem?

Sean D
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Sean D
2 years 4 months ago

Because MRI’s are good at confirming diagnoses, not finding them.

Bri87
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Bri87
2 years 4 months ago

Cs3: my understanding is that most of these guys show significant wear and tear from usage. Without significant symptoms its hard to differentiate the “normals” from “abnormals” , let alone make a decision on treatment until the problem occurs – unless you are flat out missing a piece like Dickey.

Lorenzo
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Lorenzo
2 years 4 months ago

While the article mentions Cashner and Matt Wisler, who’s pretty close, and Max Fried who’s a couple-three years away, it doesn’t mention Ian Kennedy, or Tyson Ross, or lefty Robbie Erlin, or Burch Smith, or Josh Johnson, or the other TJ recipients Joe Wieland, lefty Juan Pablo Oramas, and Casey Kelly being available later in the year.

Oramas came back from TJ surgery to pitch in the minors late last year and was electric. Smith and Erlin were part of a 6-man rotation that ended the season, and Erlin’s last five starts, he pitched to a 1.97 ERA with a 24/7 K/BB rate in 32 innings. The team also has Keyvius Sampson, who needs maybe one more year of seasoning.

The “promise” isn’t gone, just delayed, and there’s plenty of depth, even if Josh Johnson doesn’t come through. Injuries happen, and teams’ plans don’t always work out, but the article’s tone seems rather funereal. Even after losing Luebke, Padres fans are still upbeat.

Leo
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Leo
2 years 4 months ago

I really feel for the guy. I know he’s a laid back kid, with a lotta talent…and he doesnt say a whole lot, because he is so low key…but he’s gotta be as nervous as the last hog left in the pin, on Xmas morning.

history shows, with the Padres, they’ve always had a lot of pitching..sometimes good to very good. But they’ve always had arms. His dilemma is much like that of Clayton Richard, who you would think would still be with the team, after having 2, 14 game seasons with the Padres.

but the backstory as to why he is no longer with the Padres, is due to him geting injured too often. So, he was let go.

Same thing can happen to even someone with Luebke’s upside. If he continues with all these injuries, he’s outta here. Because this franchise is so pitching-rich, they can let him go and not feel the sting of his release, to much at all. It sounds harsh, but its true.

The irony here is even more tragic and harsh..

that being, how a handful of guys like Hundley, Venable, Blanks, and until very recently, Forsythe (before he was traded), got a fair amount of playing time, to a whole lot of playing time, when none of them were really worth putting out there on a regular basis.

but the lineup has had its fair share of injuries, and add to that, how cheap the owners have always been, you consequently get guys like these getting playing time that should go to more talented players.

the farm system has been overhauled more recently…so its not like we had kids coming off the farm to threaten the likes of Hundley, Forsythe, Venable or Blanks…and 2) when your owners dont want to upgrade the payroll, Bud Black is left to put “wholesale products” on the field, instead of “top shelf”.

that in a nutshell, is the more recent history of the San Diego Padres. But it does look like history is being changed with Josh Byrnes and his staff. Lets hope the owners, dont say one things about how much they plan to improve the team, only to fall back to being sneaky and shady.

Brendan
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Brendan
2 years 4 months ago

I think you’re selling the Padres very short. Even without Luebke, the Padres certainly can contend in 2014. The 2011-2012 prospect list that you deemed a failure is actually pretty successful. The Pads were ranked so high because of their depth, not due to high impact Harper or Trout like players. Let’s look at the current status of this ‘failed’ Top 10 list:

1) Casey Kelly- Recovering from Tommy John surgery. If all goes well, he’ll likely pitch for the Padres this season. Still very highly regarded. Top 100 prospect in the game.

2) Rhymer Liriano- After his Tommy John recovery in 2013, he should be ready to go for Spring Training. Will play the season in AA or AAA. Still could be an impact player on the 2015 Padres, if all goes well.

3) Joe Ross- Still a highly regarded prospect arm. And the Padres have even more great arms now then they had then (Wisler, Fried, Smith)

4) Yasmani Grandal- An underrated Catcher who will likely have a great impact on the 2014 Padres. Shows fantastic defense & has potential upside with the bat.

5) Yonder Alonso- He’s not an All Star, but he could easily have a very solid, breakout year in 2014, and I expect him to do so.

6) Jedd Gyorko- Borderline ROY candidate last season. Has great raw power. Adapted very well to 2B defensively. Needs to work on plate discipline, but could easily become a Star player starting this year.

7) Austin Hedges- The best Catching prospect in the game. Nuff said. A Top 20 prospect in the game.

8) Joe Wieland- Should be ready to start the season in AAA. Easily could join the Padres rotation in 2014. Amongst the many great, young, live arms who could contribute next season and beyond.

9) Cory Spangenburg- Had a very successful Arizona Fall League. If he has an up year, could be the Padres 2B in 2015.

10) Jaff Decker- Traded to the Pirates for a player with some decent upside, Alex Dickerson.

How the hell can you can call this Top 10 list a failure?! ALL of these guys, if you replace Dickerson with Dacker, are still a current factor on the Padres team or in their system. And the Padres have many more potential contributors in their system right now. The loss of Luebke won’t really hurt that much at all.

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