Relief pitchers can be tough to figure out. One year, a pitcher can be dominant, and the next, he’s completely ineffective. However, dominant relievers can make a team much better, and are worth investing in. The problem is finding those relief pitchers, but the Brewers may have one in Corey Knebel.
In 2017, Knebel was one of the strongest relievers in all of MLB. He led the league in appearances with 76, and recorded 39 saves as well. His 1.78 ERA and 2.53 FIP made him one of the more reliable relievers in the league as well. However, that was only one season. Going back to 2016, he only recorded a 4.68 ERA and 3.57 FIP, which aren’t terrible numbers, but also aren’t good either. The year before was better at 3.22 ERA and 4.03 FIP, but not by much. In additon, his walk rate (4.4 BB/9 in 2016, 4.7 BB/9 in 2017) is also concerning. At this point, he has had one strong year, and a couple of ok to good years to look at in his career.
While there isn’t much to look at for results so far, if the Brewers did want to extend Corey Knebel right now, what would that look like? Knebel is entering his first year of arbitration this year, but as a Super Two player. As a result, the Brewers still have four more years of control over him. Would it be out of the question to buy all of those out? Not necessarily, but based on other contracts we’ve seen, it would be at the absolute high end of what relief pitchers have received in the past. The only comparable player there would be Craig Kimbrel, who got a 4-year/$42 million extension, and that was after three seasons where he was absolutely dominant, putting together 138 saves, and his ERA & FIP were not above 2.10 in those early years.
Looking into relief pitcher extensions for Super Two players in their first year of arbitration, there was one general theme in common with them: contract length. Many of them were just two-year deals, though these were also pitchers who were relievers, but not closers. The one closer who came up in this search was Brian Wilson, who got a 2-year/$15 million extension after his first year of arbitration. He had recorded 134 saves prior to that, and the two years before it were strong (2.74 ERA/2.50 FIP in 2009, 1.81 ERA/2.20 FIP in 2010). Of course, Wilson is also a cautionary tale, as he ended up getting injured in 2012, coming back strong in 2013, then completely falling apart after that.
In fact, in terms of injuries and ineffectiveness, you don’t have to look farther than two former Brewers relievers, as well as one current reliever, to know the risk of relief pitchers. In 2016, the Brewers traded Will Smith to the Giants during the season and Tyler Thornburg to the Red Sox after the season. Neither of them played in one regular season game in 2017. In addition, there was Jeremy Jeffress, who had a very strong 2016 and was traded to Texas, but then struggled in 2017 and was traded back. All looked very good in 2016, but their 2017 seasons either never got started or were very rough.
Using those as a basis, it’s hard to go beyond two years right now for Corey Knebel. With only the elite relievers getting long-term deals, putting together something longer than two years is really tough to do. However, buying out a couple of years of arbitration isn’t a bad idea, as it would give the Brewers some cost certainty as more players hit arbitration. MLB Trade Rumors projects Knebel to get an arbitration salary of $4.1 million in 2018. With that in mind, a 2-year/$10.5 million deal ($4.25 million in 2016, $6.25 million in 2017) would be a good offer to make. It’s a little above his projected salary in 2018, and gives him a nice raise in 2019. In addition, the Brewers still retain control for 2020 and 2021, where they could revisit another deal at that time.
Corey Knebel is potentially the strongest reliever the Brewers have for their bullpen going into 2018. His excellent 2017 is something to build on, but there’s also concern that it may not be sustainable. If he continues to perform well, he could be a piece that’s worth locking up long term. However, he hasn’t hit that point yet, and any extensions should be limited to buying out arbitration years for now.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs. Contract details courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors.