Padres' Luebke leads group of potential breakout pitching stars
Cory Luebke, 27, is looking to add a third pitch to go with his fastball and slider
Chris Sale of the White Sox is vying to earn a spot in the starting rotation
Jordan Zimmermann will be a key piece of a rebuilt Washington Nationals staff
The tiny town of Maria Stein, Ohio, which is situated near the Indiana border, a two-hour drive northwest from Columbus, undoubtedly has many things to recommend it. For example, a former citizen is credited as the inventor of the world's first mechanized manure spreader. One thing that Maria Stein does not have is a temperate climate -- and that, as it does for many pitchers who do not grow up in the warmer, year-round baseball meccas, might have slowed the development of the man who might already be Maria Stein's second most famous native, the Padres lefthander Cory Luebke.
Luebke attended Ohio State, and then, after being drafted 63rd overall in 2007, spent most of his first four pro seasons in the minors. He is already 27, and has just one full year in the majors on his resume. Still, his accomplishments during his rookie year, as long in the making as it was, suggest that he might be one of baseball's best candidates to break out as a star in 2012, and even a staff's ace. "He was kind of a late bloomer, with the cold weather background," says Padres GM Josh Byrnes. "We think there's even more in there. We think what he did in 2011, he's going to build off of that."
Luebke spent the first three months of last season pitching effectively out of the bullpen, but what really opened eyes was what happened to his numbers after being given the more arduous task of starting. What happened was: they didn't change. His ERA was 3.23 in his 29 relief appearances, and 3.23 in his 17 starts. His WHIP was 1.000 as a reliever, and 1.093 as a starter. He struck out 9.9 batters per nine innings in both roles, a rate better than that of Clayton Kershaw (9.6). His numbers were not a Petco Park-created illusion, either. He pitched better in virtually every statistical way in his 23 appearances on the road than in his 23 appearances at Petco -- including ERA (4.04 at home, 2.55 away) and OPS allowed (.647 at home, .569 away).
Perhaps even more impressive is that Luebke accomplished all this with an arsenal consisting of essentially two pitches, a fastball and a slider, one or the other of which he threw more than 90 percent of the time. "I think the coaching staff talked me into moving my fastball around a little more," Luebke says, explaining his results. "I used to stay in a lot more, but I learned how to throw it down and away a little better." This year, Luebke intends to develop "something a little softer," in Byrnes' words -- namely, a reliable change-up. "Something I can use to get some outs early in the count once in awhile," Luebke says.
The addition of a change-up to his repertoire would only deepen Luebke's resemblance to Cole Hamels -- himself a San Diegan -- whom Luebke views as something of a model. "If he's on TV, I kind of get locked in on it," Luebke says. "It's hard for me to get away from the TV. He pitches aggressively with his fastball and he's got that good change, which I'm looking to establish."
Hamels, though a six-year veteran, is just 15 months older than Luebke. Both are lefthanded, both can throw mid-90s fastballs, and both are tall and lanky. Hamels is listed at 6'3" and 195 pounds, Luebke at 6'4" and 205. "Little different type of a delivery, but both lefthanded and, you know, good stuff," says Padres manager Bud Black. "That's a great model to look at for him."
"They're not just lefties that throw junk," says one scout. "They're guys whose fastballs sit in the low 90s, with good breaking pitches. I think Luebke's going to be a real good pitcher."
In the end, Luebke's long developmental curve might prove a blessing for the Padres, as he is now poised to be the long-term, team-controlled anchor of a rotation that should soon run deep, due to the impending arrivals of top prospects Casey Kelly, Robbie Erlin and Joe Wieland. (Byrnes says Wieland might reach the majors first.)
Marie Stein, Ohio, will likely never become as well known as French Lick, Ind., another small midwestern town put on the sports map by one if its native sons, and on the West Coast, the soft-spoken Luebke says, "I haven't run into anybody who's heard of it." Still, if Luebke comes through on his considerable promise, that might soon change. In San Diego, anyway.
Here are five other pitchers who, like Cory Luebke, are poised to break out in 2012:
Luke Hochevar, Royals, RHP
The 28-year-old Hochevar will never justify his draft position -- the Royals selected him first overall out of Tennessee in 2006, ahead of such players as Evan Longoria, Kershaw and Tim Lincecum -- but last season he showed signs of finally becoming a solid starter. Though his final numbers were the definition of middling (11-11, 4.68 ERA), he pitched much better after the All-Star break. In 12 second-half starts, he went 6-3 with a 3.52 ERA, with a .222 batting average against (down from .271). "When we grade him out, it's not a lack of stuff," says a scout. "But at the end of last year, he showed signs of really putting it all together. It starts with fastball command." Hochevar's command was much improved after the break, as his strikeout-to-walk ratio jumped from 1.58 to 2.83. His continuation of that trend will be crucial for the offensively talented Royals, who seem a few capable arms away their second winning season since 1994.
Brandon Morrow, Blue Jays, RHP
GM Jack Zduriencik's decision three Decembers ago to trade Morrow to Toronto in order to acquire Brandon League seems as curious now as it did at the time, despite how well League has pitched for the Mariners. Morrow, 27, is a premier strikeout artist -- his 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings last year led the American League and he ranked him second among all starters behind only the Brewers' Zack Greinke. Morrow's high ERA in 2011, 4.72, was in part attributable to his struggles pitching with men on base -- his OPS against in that situation was .811 (versus .632 with the bases empty). That lack of success resulted from an unusually high BABIP with men on -- .342, according to the website Baseball-Reference.com. Morrow should prove luckier this season, and his ERA should drop accordingly. It's nice to have a solid closer, as League has become for the Mariners. But it is even nicer to have a starter with an ace's stuff, which is what Morrow now is for the Blue Jays.
Juan Nicasio, Rockies, RHP
Nicasio, 25, suffered perhaps the scariest injury of 2011, when a line drive off the bat of Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond struck him in the head on August 5, leaving him with a fractured skull and a broken vertebra and ending a promising rookie season in which he went 4-4 with a 4.14 ERA. Against all odds, though, says GM Dan O'Dowd, "Nicasio is not only back, but there's nothing wrong with him. He's 100 percent ready to go." Scouts have clocked his fastball at 97 miles-per-hour already this spring, and he started his exhibition season by throwing three shutout innings. With staff No. 1 Jorge De La Rosa's recovery from Tommy John surgery expected to extend into June or July, the club's rotation is in flux after new acquisition Jeremy Guthrie and righthander Jhoulys Chacin. The presence of a healthy -- and fearless -- Nicasio will help settle things.
Chris Sale, White Sox, LHP
Sale was the first player from the 2010 draft to reach the majors, as he debuted in Chicago just 60 days after the White Sox selected him 13th overall. Each of his 79 appearances since then, though, has come out of the bullpen, and while he proved effective as a setup man and sometime closer -- he has a 2.58 ERA and 12 saves and has struck out 1.18 batters per inning -- his organization has always viewed him as a future starter. That future will begin now, as the Sox intend for him to be the high-upside No. 5 starter for their likely-to-be rebuilding club. Sale, 22, already used a starter's repertoire -- he last season threw each of four pitches (fastball, slider, two-seamer and changeup) at least nine percent of the time -- but the key for him, one scout says, will be learning how to strategize and conserve his energy over the course of a long game. "He still throws like a reliever," says the scout of Sale, who allowed three runs against the Cubs in his spring training starting debut last Friday -- meaning all out, on every pitch. "It's not going to happen overnight, but he could be real good, real soon."
Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals, RHP
Washington's "other Zimmerman(n)" is now two and a half years removed from Tommy John surgery, and over the course of 26 starts last season he somewhat quietly -- because of all the focus on Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg -- developed into one of the more impressive young starters in the National League. Zimmermann, 25, ranked 10th in the league in ERA (3.18) and eighth in WHIP (1.15), due in part to his precious command: The six NL starters with strikeout-to-walk ratios better than his 4.00:1 included four Cy Young winners (Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Kershaw and Greinke) and a World Series MVP (Hamels). While Strasburg, like Harper a former No. 1 overall pick, should continue to garner headlines along with new imports Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson, Zimmermann could emerge as the pivotal figure in a Nationals rotation that finally seems ready to help the team contend, even in a stacked NL East.
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