Brewers bullpen could be latest stop for young reliever Knebel
MILWAUKEE — Corey Knebel has lived the life of a journeyman in just a year and a half of professional baseball.
Over the course of the 19 months since he was drafted in the first round, Knebel made his major-league debut before being traded twice.
Less than 10 days after being acquired by the Milwaukee Brewers from the Texas Rangers as part of the Yovani Gallardo trade, the 23-year-old was still trying to wrap his head around yet another move when he appeared at Brewers On Deck.
"It has been a big roller-coaster ride," said Knebel, who turned 23 in November. "Nobody wants me, so I’m just going to whoever wants me. It has been fun. I can’t complain at all. I’ve been very blessed.
"It has all happened in a year. It has been crazy."
Of course, Knebel was joking about nobody wanting him. The other way to look at his situation is that three teams have sought to acquire him in less than two years.
Knebel pitched collegiately at the University of Texas, where he posted a 2.07 ERA with 180 strikeouts in 169 1/3 innings over three seasons as the Longhorns’ closer. He finished with 37 career saves, placing him second all-time at Texas.
Detroit drafted the right-hander with the 39th-overall pick in the 2013 first-year player draft, a supplemental pick they acquired from Miami in the Anibal Sanchez trade.
Knebel spent the remainder of the 2013 season with Class A West Michigan, recording 15 saves with a 0.87 ERA in 31 games. His accelerated path to the big leagues had him begin 2014 with Double-A Erie before he was promoted to Triple-A Toledo in May.
Less than a year after he was drafted, Knebel made his major-league debut with the Tigers on May 24 of last season. He had a 6.75 ERA over six relief appearances when he was sent back to Triple-A on June 15.
"You are playing guys you have watched growing up," Knebel said of his first experience in the big leagues. "That was a lot to handle when I first called up. Then I got sent down, and when I got called up again, I just decided to pitch like me and how I always do. I felt a lot more comfortable."
Knebel was called back up in July but pitched in just two games before he was sent to Texas as part of the trade that brought Joakim Soria to Detroit. He pitched in nine games for Triple-A Round Rock before a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow ended his season in late August.
The injury forced Knebel to push back his offseason throwing program by a month, but he is now healthy and was planning on throwing his first bullpen session this week.
"That’s a little behind," Knebel said. "Last offseason I started at the beginning of January, maybe a little before then. I just took a few precautions to make sure my arm was in shape before I started throwing a bullpen.
"Everything is going fine, knock on wood. I feel great and feel healthy."
With Milwaukee’s bullpen picture still unclear, Knebel could easily make the Opening Day roster with a strong performance in spring training.
The Brewers currently have four relievers — Jonathan Broxton, Will Smith, Jeremy Jeffress, Brandon Kintzler — who are safe bets to make the team, leaving three openings barring the addition of an established bullpen arm via free agency or a trade.
If Milwaukee does acquire another reliever and Tyler Thornburg and Jim Henderson prove to be healthy, the Brewers may opt to have Knebel begin the season as the closer at Triple-A Colorado Springs.
"We haven’t had any of those discussions," Knebel said. "This is the first time I’ve met the team and met the coaching staff. I was excited to come up here. I’m sure that will all happen in spring training."
According to fangraphs.com, Knebel’s fastball averaged at 94.8 mph in the big leagues last season. He also features what is thought of as an above-average curveball, leaving him with the potential to be a big-league closer down the road.
Knebel seems to fit the power right-handed arm the Brewers were looking to add to their bullpen, but the crazy start to his career has taught him not to ever assume where he will be pitching.
"When I found out I got traded, I was excited," Knebel said. "It is fun. I was just looking at the Rangers schedule and the Triple-A schedule for them to see where I was going to be going if I was there.
"Then I got traded and thought, ‘Well, you know, I’m going to be in a whole different part of the U.S. and playing different teams. Triple-A is in Colorado and big leagues are in Wisconsin. So, I was excited."
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