Friday, March 30, 2012

Six years for Luebke

Pitcher Cory Luebke and the Padres, this blog has learned, have agreed to a six-year, $12-million contract that guarantees salaries for the 27-year-old lefty through 2015 and sets salaries for 2016 and 2017 should the Padres pick up the club options. The options, which could take the deal to about $27.75 million, are for $7.5 million and $10 million and include a $1.75 million buyout.

Luebke is the third Padre to reach terms on a multi-year deal this month, joining two others who also are in their mid-20s, center fielder Cameron Maybin and catcher Nick Hundley.

"One, we feel like these are core players," general manager Josh Byrnes told this blog. "Two, it's good to get that stability, fix their price."

Luebke, who has a 3.38 career ERA, gave up all  three years of arbitration eligibility and his first year of free agency in return for guaranteed money that far exceeds his $415,000 salary last year and his $515,000 signing bonus in 2007.

The pitcher's agent is Barry Meister, who represented former Padres pitcher Woody Williams.

If Luebke performs well, his future salaries will be smaller than what he would've commanded with the threat of arbitration and as a free agent.

For his part Luebke, who turned 27 on March 4, obtained a lucrative hedge against injury or sharply reduced performance.

Luebke was 22 when he was drafted and spent most of two seasons with Single-A Lake Elsinore to sort out a delivery flaw, which explains why he's only now coming off his first full season in the majors.

"The talent is there," said pitching coach Darren Balsley. "I think he's a late bloomer. Mentally and physically, he's gotten better the last three years since I've seen him in major league camp. He's even grown an inch since last year."

I explained last summer, in this overly lengthy post, why Luebke is one of the franchise's recent shining examples of scouting and player development.

The left-hander was a starter throughout his minor league career before moving to the bullpen in spring training last year.

Bud Black moved him into the rotation last summer, and Luebke put together a 3.31 ERA in 17 starts. His career win-loss record is 7-11, including a 6-10 mark last year.

Several scouts not affiliated with the Padres now regard Luebke as the team's best starter, although Tim Stauffer, the presumptive Opening Day pitcher, is certainly in the conversation.

Even still, hitters such as Chipper Jones told me last season that if Luebke is to counteract opponents who generally knew very little about him last year, he'll need to refine a changeup or curveball as a third pitch to his low- to mid-90s fastball and hard slider.

Balsley said a 2-0 changeup thrown to Adrian Beltre in a recent game is a sign that Luebke is trusting the changeup, which he's thrown about 10-15 times per Cactus League outing. "I'm not going to say he's perfected it, but it's a very useful pitch for him now," Balsley said.

Even without a consistent third pitch, Luebke struck out 9.8 per nine over 157.1 innings after joining the Padres in September 2010.

A potential boon to Luebke's career is a pitching environment that's among the majors' best. Managed by a former pitcher in Black, tutored by veteran coaches Balsley and Darrel Akerfelds, maintained by a training staff that Greg Maddux rated the best he's known at preparing pitchers, Luebke won't lack for guidance.

Consider also that Petco National Park enhances all pitchers, lefties in particular as Wade LeBlanc and Clayton Richard highlighted at one point last year when they ranked 1-2 on PNP's all-time ERA chart for Padres who'd made at least five career starts.

Scouts and Padres field personnel also say athleticism favors Luebke, who played quarterback and as a basketball guard-forward for his high school in small-town Ohio.

"He's sort of a young body, young arm," Byrnes said.

The Padres' commitment to Luebke, as with Maybin and Hundley, is an investment driven by encouraging, yet limited, performance to go with field personnel's glowing reports on work ethic and competitiveness.

Maybin gained a five-year, $25 million contract, announced on March 3, in large part by having a breakout year in 2011. In four other trips to the majors, the first a 24-game stint with the Tigers in 2007, the speedster topped out at 82 games. The Padres believe the 23-year-old's performance a year ago is indicative of what's to come.

Hundley, 26, has never caught more than 100 games in a major league season. The Padres know him the best of the three, having employed him since drafting him in 2005. Coming off his best season with the bat, Hundley agreed to a three-year, $9-million deal so budget-friendly that industry insiders promptly speculated that Hundley will become trade bait late in the deal.

The pledge to Luebke comes eight days after Jeff Moorad stepped down as the club's CEO and likely required Padres upper management -- notably president Tom Garfinkel, who is the interim CEO -- to get approval of the deal from majority owner John Moores. In all, the three multi-year deals cover four years of free agency.

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