When the Brewers traded Tyler Thornburg to Boston earlier this winter, they found themselves without a clear Capital-C Closer on the roster. This isn't anything really new to the team -- they were without a proven option at the start of last season after trading away Francisco Rodriguez until Jeremy Jeffress stepped into the role, then put Thornburg there without any previous closing experience after Jeffress was traded.
There's been some speculation that the Brewers could sign a late-inning reliever this offseason, but with things still quiet and spring training a little more than a month away (really, it's almost here), maybe it's time we start looking at some internal options to cover the last three outs of the game.
If we're looking at the current 40-man roster, there may not be a more clear candidate than Corey Knebel right now. As the guy who often took the 8th inning before Thornburg in the second half of 2016, a move of the 9th inning would be a natural progression if you're thinking in the simplest of terms.
He also has the pure stuff to be a closer. Ideally, you'd like your 9th inning man to have swing-and-miss stuff to help cut down on the balls in play and keep the inning relatively stress-free. Knebel fits that bill, striking out more than a batter per inning for his career with a 10.5 K/9 rate.
Last season, he struck out 26.2% of the batters he faced, trailing only Thornburg on the team. Using PITCHf/x data, his fastball averaged 95.2 mph last year, trailing only Jeffress (95.5) and Damien Magnifico (96.7), and he complemented it well with a hammer of a curve he threw more often than any other Brewers reliever.
You'd also like your 9th inning guy to avoid putting runners on base, and that's an area where Knebel's candidacy may be hurt. As pretty as last year's 10.47 K/9 rate was, his 4.41 BB/9 was just as ugly. Among relievers who pitched more than 30 innings last year, only Michael Blazek had a higher BB% (13.4%) than Knebel's 11%.
That's, uh, not ideal -- especially when you're trying to prevent Kris Bryant or Andrew McCutchen or Joey Votto from getting another at-bat in the 9th inning with the game on the line. The good news is Knebel's walk rates have been quite a bit better than that in recent years (not great, but better), and high amounts of walks didn't prevent Francisco Rodriguez from becoming a longtime late-inning staple, even if many of his appearances did end up being 30 Pitches of Terror.
The 9th inning is the role Knebel has been groomed for for awhile, ever since he was taken in the supplemental first round in 2013 by Detroit from the University of Texas and he began finishing games in the Midwest League that year. He's had some bumps along the way and 2016 wasn't his best season, but if the Brewers continue to have nothing to lose in 2017, it may be a good time to have him learn on the job with eyes of him settling into the role in time for the next contending Brewers team.
Statistics courtesy Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs