New left-hander Cory Luebke feels good, eyes spot in Pirates bullpen
February 21, 2016 12:00 AM
Pirates left-hander Cory Luebke throws off the mound during morning workouts at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
By Bill Brink / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
BRADENTON, Fla. — It wasn’t the first elbow surgery that really got to Cory Luebke. Wasn’t the second, either, nor was it the procedure to release his ulnar nerve, which he described as “stuck.”
The staph infection Luebke got last summer, which began in his forearm and crept upward, proved to be the backbreaker.
“Of all the crap I dealt with,” Luebke said, “that one was probably the worst.”
Luebke, a 30-year-old left-hander, has moved on from the series of medical issues that cost him most of the past four seasons and turned what looked like a promising young starter for the San Diego Padres into a non-roster invitee on a minor league contract with the Pirates. Luebke will compete for the final spot in the bullpen, one of the few battles in Pirates camp.
The Padres selected Luebke in the supplemental portion of the first round in 2007, and his first extended stay in the majors began in the Padres bullpen in 2011. After pitching in 29 games in relief, striking out 43 batters in 39 innings and holding opponents to a .183 batting average, the Padres moved Luebke into the rotation. He pitched five scoreless innings in his first start June 26 and had a 3.31 ERA in 17 starts the rest of the way.
That season earned Luebke a four-year extension worth $12 million with two club options. He continued to perform in 2012, carrying a 2.61 ERA through five starts. In his fourth start, he allowed two hits in eight scoreless innings against Philadelphia, beating Phillies ace Roy Halladay in the process.
“Later in the game, I felt some nervy feeling kind of shoot up my arm after a pitch,” he said. “That week was a little struggle. The next start against the Giants, I could tell pretty early in the game that something was off.”
He has not pitched in the majors since that game against the Giants April 27, 2012. That May, he had Tommy John ligament replacement surgery, a procedure that replaced the damaged ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow with a healthy tendon from another part of the body. Recovery takes at least 12 months, sometimes longer, and returning to throwing is often painful. But even as he spent 18 months rehabbing, Luebke felt off.
“[An] MRI showed that [the new ligament] either tore in the early stages of rehab or the graft just never took, so we were kind of beating a dead horse for a while,” he said.
Luebke had the surgery again in February 2014.
“The first six months, where you don’t know, and there’s uncertainty,” he said. “Just the mental side was harder than anything. Once I started throwing, I was like OK, this feels like it used to a little bit.”
About 16 months after his second surgery, Luebke returned to the mound in an affiliated game, for one scoreless inning with Class A Lake Elsinore. He made seven appearances in the minors, but the inner workings of his elbow still raised hell. The late Dr. Lewis Yocum, who performed Luebke’s first surgery, didn’t move the ulnar nerve; Dr. James Andrews, who did the second procedure, did. But the nerve got stuck in the sling Andrews inserted for the transposition, so Luebke had another surgery to cut out the sling.
After two months of rehab, Luebke said he was ready to return in September until the staph infection hit.
“Red, swelled up, got pretty hot,” he said. “And it just kind of ran up my arm pretty quick, which, I got a little scared, because on your left side, you’ve got to watch. It doesn’t take long to get into your bloodstream.”
The staph infection went away in three months, and Luebke said he feels great since he started throwing in December. But the Padres had declined Luebke’s $7.5 million option in November, making him a free agent. Luebke sat down with his agent, Barry Meister, to discuss his options.
“He said, ‘Top of your head, are there any teams that you want?’ ” Luebke said. “I think Pittsburgh was the first one out of my mouth.”
The Pirates have had success resurrecting pitchers — A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez, J.A. Happ. Luebke pitched with Volquez in San Diego and followed his performance with the Pirates. Luebke also used to live with another former Padre, Clayton Richard, who spent part of last season in the Pirates minor league system. Rather than add Richard to the roster, the Pirates traded him to the Chicago Cubs in advance of his opt-out date.
“He had nothing but great things to say,” Luebke said of Richard. “Even though he wasn’t able to break through here, but he understood. Everybody was honest with him.”
Luebke said he likely will begin as a reliever — “Just having been so long, starting out in the ’pen would make the most sense” — which means he could find a spot on the roster with a solid camp. Six spots in the bullpen appear to be set — Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Jared Hughes, Arquimedes Caminero, Neftali Feliz and Juan Nicasio. The Pirates lack a second left-hander. In addition to Luebke, fellow non-roster invitees Robert Zarate, Jim Fuller, Kelvin Marte and Eric O’Flaherty, and possibly former Detroit Tiger Kyle Lobstein, could compete for the role.
“I’m just ready to get out of rehab mode,” Luebke said. “It’s a good feeling to know that everything’s good and start letting it go. It’s the first time in 3½ years I feel like I have my old arm back.”
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @BrinkPG.
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