Can Cory Luebke be the Next Pitcher to Receive the Ray Searage Magic?

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.

  • Nice story, TW.

    These are the kinds of players that once in a while pan out in a big way and a part of the reason I trust what Huntington is doing with the rotation / bullpen this year.

    Like Luebke says, if the Bucs are as good as their reputation, some of these options are actually good bets to fall into place. I also like what Richard had told him: Lot of good minds there.

    -Wabbit

  • His minor league K/9 was only 7.5, while going up to 9.3 in the majors (including 9.1 as a SP). Should I chalk that up to sample size, or did he change something between the minors and MLB?

    • Maybe the Padres have a similar minor league pitching philosophy to the Pirates, which tends to keep K/9 numbers down a bit below what the pitcher could accomplish given absolute pitch selection freedom. That’s what Cole was like coming up through the system, after all, and now that he’s pitching to get strikeouts, he’s getting strikeouts.

  • IMO a big aspect of Searage’s “magic” is the front office and scouts identifying pitchers who have a reasonable chance of bouncing back. I’m not trying to diminish Searage and Benedict’s work, just saying that they’ve got to get something real to work with as well.

    • I totally agree it’s a team effort. It’s the Front Office’s job to find talent and its Searage’s job to bring that talent out in players.

    • Searage Magic fits in the title and is a good summary. But yeah, as I’ve written before, the process also includes scouting, analyzing the numbers, and a bunch of other coaches beyond Searage and Benedict.

  • He has a much better history than Richard did. I doubt that the Bucs will risk losing him if he is close to his old form, he was once very highly thought of.

  • How do the contract situations work for Leubke and O’Flaherty beyond this year if they turn back into productive players? Are they free agents at year end or is their some control left?

    • O’Flaherty has over eight years of service time, so he would be a free agent at the end of the year. Luebke has five years and 33 days, so his situation would depend on how long he is on the MLB roster. If they turn him around and he’s added to the MLB roster in June, then they will control him next year.

  • We are putting way too much pressure on Searage to turn turds into starters… I know he has a great track record, but its generally with guys with a larger degree of past success and more upside. Vogelsong and Locke are #5-#6 pitchers on a NON-CONTENDING team. On a related note, why haven’t the Pirates extended Searage yet? He is the only thing standing between the Nutting castle and the Pirates fans with pitchforks.

    • Calm down. How do you know how much pressure he actually feels? The Pirates went 16-14 in Locke’s 30 starts last year. That’s not bad for a back of the rotation pitcher. The Pirates have considerable prospect pitching depth this year and the bullpen will shorten a lot of games. I think you’re overreacting just a tad. I think you’ll find there are a lot of us not holding pitchforks.

      • Pretty sure the “pressure” Zach mentions isn’t meant personally on Searage as much as it is “oh shit, now what do we do” on the Pirates if he *isn’t* able to do all that they need.

        • NMR is correct. Assuming, arguendo, that Vogelsong can’t get it done, Locke continue to struggle and Searage isn’t able to work miracles on these dumpster guys—then what? We literally have no safety net of big league ready guys…Cue the we could stretch out nicasio posts….

          • Bullpen games until until one of Glasnow or Taillon is ready.

            Huntington & Co are far too smart to think they have enough depth to contend. What you’re seeing is an intentional strategy to ensure prospects have an opening this year. See what they have, go at it again in 2017 with a full focus on winning.

            • Almost sounds like starting the season with Worley and Locke in 2015.

              • Except for the little part where Worley and Locke were battling for the last spot in the rotation and coming of sub-4 xFIP seasons, sure! Whatever helps you sleep.

    • Ray Searage has no pressure on him about turning these guys around its not in his nature. I also believe Ray is going to be retiring after the season and probably take on a consulting role with the Pirates.

    • One wonders what he could do with guys that actually have good stuff like Burnett and Volquez. I agree, sometimes we give him too much credit. Especially if a guy has nowhere to go but up. Or was hurt.

      • Yes!

        Luebke would fit that mold much more than Niese/Vogelsong, as long as his elbow still works. Then again, if his elbow still worked there’s a damn good chance the Padres would’ve re-signed him.

        • Not sure why you keep discounting Niese. 3 of the last 4 years he has ERA’s of 3.40, 3.71 & 3.40 with good fip #’s to back it up. He seems like a classic guy that Searage can get a tweak here and there and he’s back to his 2014 form. I think it comes from trading Walker and you valuing him with your heart and not your head. Look what they did for Happ and his stuff is very similar to Niese…

          • Was I arguing with my heart when criticizing Walker for whining at the trade deadline (multiple times)? For not taking care of his body as well as he should have? What about any of the dozen times I was against a Neil Walker extension?

            I’m against Niese because he most certainly *is not* the kind of classic guy Searage can turn around; not even close. Again, the g*dd*amn General Manager has said as much!

            Niese doesn’t have any of the peripheral indicators ( high K%, high BB%, xFIP < ERA) or quality stuff (velocity, break, depth) that successful reclamations have had in the past. And as for the Happ comparison, I could not agree less. Happ averages three more mph on his fastball and had a huge advantage in swinging strike rate. When people make this argument I can't tell if they didn't actually know what they had in JA Happ or have no idea what they're getting in Jon Niese.

            • So what’s your prediction for Niese this year? Just from his 12′ ’13 ’14 years you see that he had a 3.45 ERA or somewhere around there, with the Pirates shifts to help him out as a ground ball pitcher and PNC Park what is keeping you from expecting a return to form? Even without the Searage stuff I see someone who is due to get a little better than last year.

              • I mean, he just came from a home ballpark that’s just as hitter-friendly as PNC and he *already* outperformed his batted ball data last year, so no, I don’t see at all why I should just blindly expect PNC and shifts to make an appreciable difference.

                His stuff has backed up to the point where there are few pitchers in baseball more hittable. But the real catch 22 for me was hearing his own explanation for his struggles last year, which he attributed to a change in delivery. That’s great! That’s what Searage is best at! Except Niese himself claims to have made the change in order to fix lingering health problems. Problems with his shoulder. Not only did Searage/Benedict make Charlie Morton worse last year trying to do similar tweaks, Morton’s issue wasn’t shoulder.

                I think it would be too optimistic to *expect* anything more than 180 IP at a bit above 4 ERA. Doesn’t mean he can’t do better, but also doesn’t mean he can’t do worse.

                • I’ll concede he could turn out like a Morton or Locke but I also think his last year with the Mets he may have also had some mental problems. With Syndegard and Matz coming up and taking his spot in the rotation, he said in an interview he felt “wanted” by the Pirates. He has a track record of success and he seems happier with us so far so I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect a sub 4.00 ERA

                  • Hell no! Not unreasonable at all. I think where we differ is how far below four. The Pirates gave up a ~2.5 win player to get Niese; he’d need to push into the 3.50-3.75 range just to break even on that trade, let alone begin to add value. I’m less optimistic on the chances of that Jon Niese showing up than the more recent version that’s more like a fine #5 on a contender.

                    • Well I hope your’re wrong! But hey, I would love a rotation consisting of Cole, Liriano, Glasnow, Tallion, and Niese!
                      And i’m not sure a top tier rotation is a requirement for a contending team. Look at the Royals from last year.

                    • I’ll do you one better…not only do I like that rotation, I don’t even think they’ll need to spend ~$10m next year to keep Niese in it. I’m very much resigned to what 2016 is likely to be, and look forward to seeing a lot of young kids getting their feet wet.

                      I don’t think the Royals are at all a good comp to the Pirates situation, and this has been a point of mine all winter. The Royals had the luxury of cruising their way to a Division title, because the rest of their competition kind of sucked. The Pirates, through no fault of their own, have a much, MUCH more difficult challenge. What worked for the Royals will not work for the Pirates. It ain’t fair, but thems the breaks.

                    • That’s a very good point about the strength of our division. If that’s the case I honestly don’t blame NH for making this year a ‘bridging’ year. And even if moneybags Nutting put how much he actually should we wouldn’t be able to compete year in and year out.

                    • Yeah, I don’t really get why some here get so defensive when I call this a “re-tooling” year. That’s exactly what it is, and absolutely a rational decision from Huntington.

                      There *could* have been things done to make this team closer to a true contender to the division, but even with all the right breaks in the market they’d realistically still be behind the Cubs. I don’t at all fault Huntington for the direction he took this 2016 club once it became obvious they weren’t getting the players they set out to get. Plenty of shot to contend for a wild card while pulling the bandaid off quickly and getting a bunch of kids the playing time they’ll need to develop.

                    • If we would’ve gotten Happ or another SP I believe we would’ve been genuine contenders, but you know then what about ’17? We can’t beat the Cubs at that kind of game because they can match our Happ with their Lackey and they can throw in a Heyward too. It’s better to let our younglings develop this year so that we can have a truly top tier team for the future.

            • Niese isn’t a reclamation pitcher.

              • He’s either a reclamation pitcher or a just plain shitty one.

                • Yeah, his ERA 3 of the past 4 years sure look shitty to me….I guess if you have one bad year, that makes you either shitty or a reclamation pitcher. Not to mention he pitched behind pretty shitty defense in NY. He will benefit not only from Ray, but also better defense.

                  • Whatever helps you sleep at night.

                    • Dude, why be like that? Nothing wrong with having a healthy debate…When you say that, seems like you’re conceding defeat. BTW, I sleep well, man. Hope you do, too!

                      Do you have anything to back up why he’s a reclamation pitcher or a “shitty” pitcher ?

                    • I have absolutely no interest in arguing semantics.

                      Niese was a good pitcher from ’11-’14, and a shitty one last year. He either needs to reclaim that lost value, or continue to be shitty. You can call that whatever the hell you want.

                    • I call it a pitcher having one bad year, after 3 successful years. Conversation in now over.

  • Does anyone know his pitch repertoire? I remember him being successful as a starter his rookie year so I assume his secondary stuff is somewhat legit but I never saw him pitch.

  • HartHighPirate
    February 16, 2016 2:39 pm

    Tim, will the Pirates receive a compensation pick in the 2016 draft with Bastardo leaving as free agent?

  • Does he have options left?

    • Signed to a minor league contract, so options are not immediately relevant. But if he is added to the 40-man, he will have all 3 options (he was added to the 40-man by San Diego in September 2010 and was never optioned as a member of the Padres).

      The downside is, he would have the right to refuse an outright assignment.

  • I’m more bullish on O’Flaherty, myself. Although, if BOTH turn out to be back to their old selves, then that is a good problem to have?

    • It’s just nice to get two lottery tickets instead of one. Your chances still aren’t great but they are great cheap flyers. Even if it takes half a year or more to get them straight they still could be very valuable come August or Sept if they are still around.

    • Lee, do you consider both longshots to help us?
      Are some folks just being such fans, that they
      are overly optimistic?

      • I mean, how many pitchers can you name that successfully came back from three consecutive elbow surgeries? That should pretty much set your level of optimism.

        • There is always a first for everything! 🙂

          • You bet. I said last week that if Benedict can get Richard throwing 90 again after so many shoulder injuries, anything is possible.

        • Of course, how many pitchers do you know pitching
          at a level just above amateur level and in a few
          months pitching for a team battling for a playoff spot.

          I guess some miracles do happen.

  • Will they have enough time in ST to see if he is ready
    or will he have to prove himself (to the Pirates as well)
    as us fans) in Indy first?

    • I bet a buck that he starts the year at Indy.

    • I hope that if he proves himself in Indy, we actually get to see him promoted to the big league roster instead of losing him like we did with Richard.

    • I think it would be best for everyone if he starts out in Indy. He could settle into a relief routine without the pressures of the mlb. The Pirates could get a longer look.

      Conversely, if he is doing well, he could start in Pgh and immediately plug a hole. It would be worth something, even if he loses the mojo after a month or two, we could release

    • He’s ready to compete for a job, so if he doesn’t make it, it likely won’t be because he has to get ready.

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