Amid all the discussion about Josh Lueke's past legal troubles, discussion about his on-field potential has been pushed to the backburner.
The 6-foot-5, 235-pound righthander was brought over from Seattle by executive vice president Andrew Friedman to bolster a relief corps that led the American League last season in allowing the least runs per game (3.79 per game) and ranked second in opponent batting average (.228).
A Major League scout who asked to be unnamed informed me that Lueke has three pitches that "are vicious" and "a bulldog mentality" similar to Joe Nathan and Brad Lidge. He said Lueke has three pitches -- a fastball "hovering around 96 MPH," a slider that "can be slurvy at times" and a split-finger that is his best pitch and described as "one of the best in baseball when he's on."
Friedman agreed, telling Marc Topkin of the St. Petersburg Times that "Josh has the stuff to get hitters out in the American League East and began to show during the second half of last season." Friedman added: "We believe he can be an important part of our success here for many years."
Apparently, Lueke, who turns 27 on December 5, figured it out after his first stint in the Majors resulted in 12 hits and 12 runs over 6 1/3 innings in eight April appearances. After being sent down to Triple-A Tacoma, where he had 11 saves in 30 appearances while giving up 17 runs in 42 1/3 innings, the Kentucky-native returned to the Mariners in July and pitched brilliantly, allowing 10 runs in 26 1/3 innings (3.42 ERA) while surrendering 22 hits and issuing seven walks.
Even better, his strikeout ratio improved. In April, he had eight strikeouts and six walks, but then had 21 strikeouts over the second half of the season with the Mariners.
Lueke limits instant damage as well, allowing just two homers and six doubles (one post-April) over 32 2/3 Major League innings last season. In five Minor League seasons, Lueke gave up 13 homers in 220 innings -- just one in 59 2/3 innings over two seasons with Tacoma.
Lueke, who was ranked as the 17th best prospect in the Mariners organization, also does well in making batters miss. He had 261 strikeouts in the Minors -- 53 with Tacoma -- and had a 13.1 percent swinging strike percentage before compiling a 10.3 percentage in his Major League games, tied for 30th.
In comparison, James Shields ranked 10th for Major League starters in 2011 with a 10.7 swinging strike percentage and Kyle Farnsworth, who has a career 12.0 percentage, had a 10.2 swinging strike percentage. Jake McGee, who was rated as the Rays' third-best organizational prospect, finished the 2011 Major League campaign with a 9.9 percentage. [Michael Pineda (Mariners) led starters with a 11.8 % and Jonathan Papelbon (formerly with the Red Sox, now with the Phillies) led relievers with a 16.8 %].
While Lueke's checkered past has caused many in the Tampa Bay area to wince, the fact one of the best executives in the game made the deal must be considered.
Friedman told the Times that the Rays looked "thoroughly" into the incident. "We're satisfied that he is going to be the kind of person and teammate that we look for, and we expect him to contribute positively to our group," Friedman said.
Lueke pleaded no-contest to false imprisonment (reduced from rape and sodomy) charge stemming from a May 2008 incident in Bakersfield, Calif. He was sentenced to the 42 days he had served in jail before posting bail, and three years felony probation.
Lueke seems to have matured, though.
"I hope people will understand I've learned from my mistakes and I'm a good person," Lueke said. "Once I got ouf the 'I know more than anyone else stage,' I learned quite a bit."
Lueke wants people in the Tampa Bay area to know they are getting a hard worker who wants to "do whatever I can to help the team win."
"People can look at one incident and decide that's who you are," Lueke told Larry Larue of The News Tribune (Seattle) back in February. "I had a lot of support throughout this, from my parents, from teammates – with the Texas Rangers and here – from my host family in Bakersfield. My mom has had it the hardest. She likes to brag about me, and for a while she felt she couldn't. My dad is a rock. The worst thing in the world would be disappointing my family. They raised a good son."
On the field, Lueke describes himself as a fearless player.
"Every year, I'm trying to walk fewer than 10 batters and reduce any damage when I'm on the mound," Lueke said. "I hope I can add to a bullpen that's been one of the best over the last few years."
Jamie Navarro, the pitching coach with Tacoma in 2009-10 and Seattle's bullpen coach last season, has served as a father-figure for Lueke over the past few years and says people need to understand Lueke has learned from his mistakes and will be a good addition to the Rays.
"Everybody has an opinion about Josh," said Navarro, who has been instrumental in the development of Pineda and Mariners ace Felix Hernandez. "I know Josh, not only as a baseball player, but as a person. He's been accountable for his actions and he's moved on from it. He's not a troublemaker, not a bad person. People need to forgive and not define him through one action."
Navarro believes Lueke will be able to work the seventh and eighth innings for the Rays when the team is ahead.
"He has the stuff to help secure wins," Navarro said.
Based in St. Petersburg, Fla., Chris Girandola has been a sports journalist for over eight years. After receiving his Master of Arts in Journalism and Media Studies from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, Girandola took his talents to New York, where he worked as an associate reporter for MLB.com covering the New York Mets. Following this stint, Girandola was hired as a regular contributor for Major League Baseball Advanced Media. His credits also include the Associated Press, St. Petersburg Times, Naples News, Florida Football Magazine, Kentucky Basketball Magazine, and Tampa Bay Business Journal. Girandola has also dabbled in collegiate athletics as a member of the St. Mary's College basketball team and is a coach for high school hoops.