The Lost Season of Cory Luebke

It was reported on September 15th that Cory Luebke was shut down for the season after his fourth bullpen session due to soreness in his throwing elbow. It is the third time Luebke’s throwing sessions have been halted and comes only two weeks after reports of a 70 pitch bullpen session that “went well” according to the Padres. Per Rotoworld, Luebke is now scheduled to be examined again by Dr. Tim Kremchek in Cincinnati.

Dr. Kremchek studied under Dr. James Andrews and has been an orthopedic surgeon for more than 18 years. He is also the Cincinnati Reds medical examiner. Needless to say, there are few doctors in this country, if any, that are better suited to deal with Luebke’s injury. So once again, we are in a wait-and-see period with Luebke. Rumblings of potential second surgeries have begun and the worry and fear amongst those inside the Padres is becoming too great to conceal.

The office of Dr. Kremcheck in Cincinnati is a long way from April 27, 2012. Luebke and the Padres had just come off agreeing to terms, extending Luebke through the 2015 season with club options of 2016 and 2017. It was the kind of forward thinking signing that fans have been clamoring for the Padres to pull off. Lock up the young talent at reasonable cost. In this case, $12 million guaranteed over 3 years, another $17.5 million to utilize both 2016 and 2017’s options. By all accounts, the Padres had an ace in the making whose presence made dealing Mat Latos a few months earlier seem like a much easier pill to swallow. Since that extension, the Padres have received 5 starts from Luebke, the final one being April 27, 2012.

On that day, Luebke pitched a gem, going 6 innings and giving up 2 runs at San Francisco. There was no indication in that game that anything had gone wrong. Unlike other notable arm injuries to pitchers (Strasburg, Prior, Cashner) who’s injuries occurred in the middle of the game, Luebke left that game in San Francisco and appeared completely fine. Of course, he wasn’t. In this article from Corey Brock from May of 2012 it is noted that Luebke believes he tore the ligament a start earlier when he pitched 8 scoreless innings in Petco vs Philadelphia.

“It wasn’t one pitch or something I felt leading up to it. The first 4 1/2, five starts, I felt great,” Luebke said. “We think it happened at some point in that Phillies game. The next day, it was sore as normal. I threw a light bullpen [session] that week and it felt a little off.”

The Padres and Luebke took a conservative approach first. Skip a start, get some rest, no MRI scheduled. When that didn’t work, an MRI was scheduled revealing the tear. Rehabilitation was considered, a second opinion sought, and ultimately Tommy John surgery was opted for. Projected return date: May 2013.

Cut to Spring Training 2013. He was throwing and everything appeared to be on track for a May return. Then, soreness in the elbow in February and the first shut down. At the time Luebke appeared in as good of spirits as someone could expect. He noted he expected to suffer “bumps” in the recovery process. As it turned out, being a Padre provided Luebke with a wealth of first-hand experience coming back from Tommy John surgery.

“It’s frustrating, but so many guys have gone through it. When I look around this clubhouse, (Edinson) Volquez, (Eric) Stults, Carlos (Quentin), (Kyle) Blanks, Joe (Wieland) and Dino (Chris Denorfia) have all had Tommy John surgery.”

He was shut down again in May of this season. Again due to soreness after resuming a throwing program. In August, he was back at it, throwing bullpen sessions and once again appearing to be on his way. And now, once again, soreness in the elbow and a shut down. This time may lead to another surgery and restarting the rehab process. Speculating when we may see Cory Luebke on a mound in a Padres uniform at this point is a fools’ errand.

It’s important to note a few things about Tommy John surgery and medical procedures as a whole. It’s easy, when you see success story after success story, to not take a moment to think of how devastating an injury the one Luebke suffered is for pitchers. And how far medical technology has come that Luebke pitching again is even an option.

Dr. Frank Jobe did the first Tommy John surgery on, naturally, Tommy John. Tommy John famously went on to play 13 more seasons. Before Dr. Jobe and Tommy John the injury (which is a tear of the ulnar collateral ligament) was career ending.

The procedure itself is something out of science fiction. A tendon is harvested from the forearm, leg or cadaver and then thread threw two holes that have been drilled into the elbow bone. At the time of John’s surgery his chances for full recovery were put at 1/100. Today, the chances of full recovery is at over 85%.

But it’s not 100%. And that has nothing to do with the person. Body chemistry reacts in different ways. For the same reason that it is virtually impossible to predict who will suffer such an injury, it is equally impossible to predict who will recover. From a March 2012 article in ESPN Magazine: 

Every pitcher no matter his age, generates enough force on each pitch to rupture the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow.

The Padres 2007 first round supplement pick, Cory Luebke will surpass the 18-month rehab mark in November. And at this point there is no reason to believe that his arm, an arm the Padres so had belief in that they extended him after only a handful of starts, will be right.

Spring Training is in 5 months. Whether Cory Luebke is throwing in a Padres uniform in Peoria by then remains a mystery that so far cannot be solved by the best orthopedic surgeons in America.

Here’s to a happy report in Cincinnati. And a successful healing process here on in.

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