BRADENTON, Fl. – A lot of players will say that the team they signed with was the team they wanted end up with all along. There’s really no incentive to say that you were interested in a different team after you’ve signed a deal. But in some cases, the player does actually end up with his top choice. That seems to be the case with left-handed pitcher Cory Luebke.
“When I sat down with my agent before the year, he asked if there were any teams I’d like to go to,” Luebke said. “The Pirates were one of the first ones out of my mouth.”
Luebke had seen what the Pirates had done with pitchers over the last few years. He talked with former Padres teammates Clint Barmes and Clayton Richard, who both had great things to say about the coaches and the culture of the organization. But the biggest influence might have been the recommendation from Richard.
“We had some discussions on why are the Pirates doing so well getting guys that are coming off some injuries, and guys that are rejuvenating their career a little bit,” Luebke said. “What are they doing? Clayton said it’s a lot of good minds, good staff, good structure. So definitely, in my situation, that was kind of exactly what I was looking for.”
Luebke is coming off a string of injuries that have sidelined him for the last three seasons. He had a career 3.25 ERA and a 3.21 xFIP in 188.1 innings between 2010 and 2012, spending some time as a starter in San Diego during that time. However, his 2012 season was derailed after going down with Tommy John surgery in May that year. He had a few setbacks, which put him out for the entire 2013 season. He then had to undergo a second Tommy John surgery in 2014, which caused him to miss that season.
The injuries didn’t end there. He pitched a few rehab games in 2015, but was then derailed again with soreness in his left elbow. Fortunately, this time it was just a nerve that was catching. He had the elbow cleaned up, and things felt fine after that. The doctors said his ligament looked good, and he was able to have a normal off-season, with his rehab work now completed.
“It’s exciting to know I feel good, and the last two months I’ve been playing catch and everything feels good,” Luebke said. “It’s exciting for me just going into Spring Training and everything feels good for the first time in a while.”
Neal Huntington called Luebke in December to express interest. The Pirates still had a need for left-handed pitching late in the off-season, and signed Luebke and Eric O’Flaherty to minor league deals a week ago. Both have question marks, with the obvious question mark for Luebke being his health and return after missing three years. It’s still too early to say whether he’s back to his pre-injury form, but the important thing is that he’s healthy.
“It feels good,” Luebke said of the elbow. “I try to be quiet about it, I guess. I’ve had so much bad luck that I don’t want to count the eggs before they hatch. But I am feeling the best I’ve felt since before this mess started. So we’ll see how it goes.”
Luebke is on a normal throwing program now, and has already thrown four bullpens since joining the Pirates. He will enter Spring Training with no limitations, and ready to compete for a job.
“I think the training wheels are off,” Luebke said. “Obviously I’ll be smart when I need a day here or there. But honestly the last month, everything has gone really well. I haven’t missed any days. I’m planning on going like any other guy.”
The biggest need for the Pirates would be a second left-handed reliever. They lost Antonio Bastardo to free agency, and didn’t fill that spot with any guaranteed option. Instead, they went with a lot of minor league deals and smaller trades, with Luebke being one of the more interesting names on the list due to his previous success. But he’s not eyeing just that one role, instead using his time to show that he’s finally healthy.
“It’s not like there’s one spot I’ve got my eyes on,” Luebke said of the second lefty relief spot. “My goal is to get healthy and show that I’m healthy, and compete. If I do my part, things will take care of whatever aspect they might need me in.”
You’d have to think that if Luebke was healthy and back to his old self, it would only follow that he’d get the second lefty job. You might even think he’d be a starting option, due to his previous track record. But starting seems to be on the back burner for now.
“A lot of that is going to kind of be feel with how the arm is doing,” Luebke said. “The doctors and therapists would like the idea of me starting in the bullpen and testing it before [moving to the rotation].”
Luebke said that the doctors and therapists don’t want him going over 100 innings this year after three years off. That would limit him to a relief role. But it might be tempting to look at him as a starter if the relief pitching works out.
“That’s easier said than done if you’re feeling good and things are rolling,” Luebke said of the 100 inning limit. “I think just ease back into it here, and we’ll cross some bridges when we get to them.”
Nothing is guaranteed for Luebke, but it’s good to see that he’s finally feeling healthy. Hopefully that means his elbow problems are behind him. A better scenario would have him returning to his old numbers before the injuries, which would probably require a little of the Ray Searage magic that Luebke signed up for. If that happened, it would give the Pirates a very strong option for their second lefty relief spot.