Despite nearly making the playoffs last season, the San Diego Padres decided it was time to rebuild. In order to restock the farm system, San Diego traded away Adrian Gonzalez — easily their best player — and acquired Cameron Maybin, who may roam center field in Petco Park for many, many years. For teams like the Padres, who have essentially punted this season to rebuild their team, the performance of young players or prospects is one of the few positives ownership can sell to the fans. Cory Luebke, a former first-round pick, was given the opportunity to make his first start of the season this past Sunday.
Although Luebke, 26, was having a phenomenal season in the bullpen, the Padres decided he could be a larger asset in the rotation. In his first start, Luebke didn’t disappoint — going five innings with six strikeouts, while allowing only one hit. It may have been a successful debut for Luebke, but there are reasons for concern going forward.
Luebke benefitted quite a bit from being in the bullpen. Though his strikeout rates in the minors remained only average, they jumped upon his promotion to the majors due to his new role. Since Luebke was no longer starting — and would pitch in much shorter stints — he could rely on his two best pitches in order to succeed. Conventional wisdom says that starters need three pitches in order to be successful, so it was unclear how Luebke would fare once thrust into the rotation. On top of that, Luebke is also subject to all of the typical concerns of the reliever-to-starter conversion — decreased velocity, lowered strikeout rate, etc.
If his first start was any indication, Luebke is aware of those concerns. After nearly scrapping his changeup the entire season, Luebke brought it back in his first start of the season. By re-introducing his change, Luebke has shown that he has the ability to throw three effective pitches — something he hadn’t shown to that point all season. He may have only thrown the pitch six times, but it gives him an extra weapon in the rotation and should make it harder for hitters to sit on a certain pitch.
While the added use of his changeup is promising, Luebke is still a threat to suffer the usual symptoms of a pitcher making this transition. After just one start, it’s impossible to tell how those factors will affect Luebke going forward. More than likely, however, his strikeout rate is going to drop quite a bit. Nothing in his minor league profile suggests Luebke can sustain a K/9 of 10.02 as a starter. Based on his minor league stats, a K-rate near seven seems reasonable — if not optimistic. Luebke is also going to have to maintain his walk rate, since walking nearly four batters per game is not the best strategy for a starting pitcher.
Still, San Diego has nothing to lose promoting Luebke to the rotation. While it’s tough to project exactly how he will handle the changes associated with this transition, he has at least shown the ability to add a third pitch to his repertoire. That’s not a revolutionary tactic, but it proves the Luebke has the necessary weapons to succeed in this role. With San Diego playing for their future, they have nothing to lose by inserting Luebke into the rotation for good. He’s still relatively young, and could be a mid-rotation starter on this team for many years. The Padres are building for the future, and there’s no better time to see if Cory Luebke is going to be a part of the next winner in San Diego.