Brewers By the (Jersey) Numbers ’17 — #46 Corey Knebel

Opening Day on April 3rd is 46 days away.

With that circumstance, “Brewers By the (Jersey) Numbers” ticks down from our first catcher profile of the year to yet another relief pitcher in the person of…

Corey Knebel.

The 2016 season in the Milwaukee Brewers bullpen was one of multiple opportunities. Long, if repeatedly, tenured closer Francisco Rodriguez was actually contractually obligated to pitch for a different organization to begin the year (it’s true). The two-headed closer that Manager Craig Counsell envisioned when camp opened never really materialized as one head injured its knee while going through the process of shoe removal. Later, both heads would be traded opening up the high-leverage innings they were filling up to the trades. All of the opportunities created by those occurrences must have seemed like the proverbial “brass ring,” just there for the seizing.

Unfortunately for Corey Knebel, he created some of that opportunity as well when a pair of Spring Training injuries (the latter forcing him to the DL) ultimately led to him missing the first two months of the season. So the Brewers suddenly found themselves without one of their would-be co-closers and the expected top setup option in front of them was now unavailable. Knebel’s injury did, in part, allow (force?) the Brewers to add Blaine Boyer and Chris Capuano to the roster as well as sign 2016’s unsung hero: Carlos Torres.

Once Knebel’s oblique was healthy enough for him to return to the big leagues, his rehab assignment (shortened due to extenuating circumstances on the big league roster) proved insufficient to preparing him to face big league hitters. To be fair, while he worked nearly a full Cactus League schedule, a couple of rehab appearances after two months off isn’t much, and Knebel struggled to a 8.31 ERA in his first five games. He pitched just 4.1 innings while walking six. It being atypical, the Brewers optioned Knebel down to get more innings.

After just shy of a month with the Triple-A Colorado Springs Sky Sox, Knebel was recalled and was back to being his normal self. He would allow runs in eight of 30 games following the recall and only had one bad stretch from August 29 thru September 10 in which he gave up nine earned runs — he only allowed 17 ER all year — in 4.2 innings over six appearances.

The good news is that Knebel finished the season healthy and had a full off-season program this year. Hopefully with Pitchers and Catchers now having gotten through a couple of workouts, Knebel is able to remain healthy up to and through Opening Day…46 days away.

The 2017 outlook for Knebel is slightly cloudier today than it appeared to be last December 6th when Tyler Thornburg was traded to the Boston Red Sox, creating yet another opportunity in Milwaukee. Given the players under control by the Brewers at that time, Knebel seemed to be the front runner for the 9th inning role. A closer in college at Texas, Knebel has been working exclusively in relief ever since being drafted back by the Detroit Tigers back in first round of the 2013’s First-Year Player Draft. It seems to be his eventual destination (assuming some of his internal competition doesn’t get there first.)

David Stearns recognized that his bullpen as a whole was still relatively inexperienced, at least as it came to high-leverage situations. While Knebel does have pretty good numbers in those situations, he’s still just 25 years old and should have a long career ahead of him. Stearns brought in veteran-of-eight-big-league-seasons Neftali Felíz to be the closer and supplemented that signing with an experienced late-inning reliever in Joba Chamberlain on a minor league contract.

Bottom line is that Knebel should fall back into a setup role to open the season with some save opportunities coming along the way. And if Felíz follows a Jeffress path out of town in late-July, perhaps Knebel will find himself following Thornburg’s 2016 in-season path of assuming the 9th inning reins at that time.

First and foremost for Knebel, however, is remaining healthy enough to follow any path other than his own from last year. As mentioned above, he was healthy to finish the 2016 season, but he didn’t exactly come into camp last spring with a history of oblique issues either.

Follow Corey on Twitter: @coreyknebel29

Looking to catch up on this season’s BBtJN? Just click on a name below:

#59 Carlos Torres
#57 Chase Anderson
#56 Ryan Webb
#54 Michael Blazek
#53 Jhan Mariñez
#52 Jimmy Nelson
#51 Damien Magnifico
#50 Jacob Barnes
#47 Jett Bandy