The Brewers rebuild didn't really begin until 2015's trade deadline when Doug Melvin began moving players, the most noteworthy being the Gomez/Fiers deal. And this offseason has been a dazzling display by David Stearns of what you can do with very little if you're smart and patient. But there was one trade that occurred before all of this that may still have a large impact on the Brewers future fortunes. I'm referring to the Yovani Gallardo trade.
In January of 2015 Melvin sent Gallardo the Rangers in exchange for Corey Knebel, Marcos Diplan, and Ramon Flores--okay it was Luis Sardinas but his time with the Brewers was short lived. While I still think someday we'll consider Diplan the jewel of this deal, Corey Knebel offers tons of value both present and future.
The right-handed pitcher was originally drafted by the Tigers in the supplemental first round of the 2013 draft--39th overall. He was traded to the Rangers the following year and then again to the Brewers. He made his major league debut the year after he was drafted and last year threw 50 innings with the Brewers--just 2 after being drafted. It was a quick ascent for the young pitcher and not at all surprising.
He has a double plus fastball that sits in the mid to high-90's and a plus curveball. His command could still use some work, but it's good enough right now that he can survive in the majors as evidenced by his 50.9 zone% and 8.1 BB%--league average is 7.7%. If he can take a step forward in this area he's going to be a very special pitcher.
He logged a 27.8 K% in his rookie season with Milwaukee. That's not quite elite--it was the 35th best K% among qualified relievers last year--it's still very good and incredibly encouraging for a pitcher with his lack of experience. If the command takes a step forward, so too could his strike out ability. That is an exciting thought. And that's why I believe he's the Brewers "closer of the future."
For now I think the Brewers will probably roll with Will Smith or perhaps a combination of Smith and Jeremy Jeffress. But part of that is to try and maximize their trade value. And part of that, right or wrong, is to suppress Corey Knebel's earning potential. While most people will admit that saves are a deceptive if not entirely useless statistic, relievers still get paid for them in arbitration. By keeping Knebel out of the closer role, even if it's just for this season, they likely limit the total amount of money he'll be able to earn when he hits arbitration in 2019--unless he qualifies for Super Two status which I think he might.
Regardless of the meta-aspect of naming him closer, he's going to be a good pitcher. Or at least he should be. Baseball is a crazy, stupid, horrible, wonderful game and anything can happen. The tools are there for greatness however. And even though I think Will Smith might possess the highest level of present talent, I think Corey Knebel is likely, and by a wide margin, destined to have the best career of anyone in the Brewers bullpen mix right now.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs