2019 Salary: $5,125,000
2020 Projection: $5,125,000
Corey Knebel’s season was effectively over a week before Opening Day, when elbow discomfort forced him out of the final batch of Spring Training games. It was officially over the day after Opening Day, when he chose to undergo long-needed Tommy John surgery after pitching with a damaged UCL four four years.
Knebel’s injury was an early blow the Brewers’ 2019 plans, and one that was compounded by Jeremy Jeffress’ early-season shoulder weakness that sapped his velocity. Before that, there was hope Knebel would be able to return to his All-Star form in the 9th inning while Josh Hader was used as a versatile weapon anywhere between the 7th and 9th innings. Losing Knebel to Tommy John and Jeffress to the Injured List early (and ineffectiveness later) meant Hader was forced to the final inning.
It also means the Brewers are left to evaluate this decision on Knebel on where he was in 2018. While he was excellent down the stretch that year, helping power the Brewers to their NL Central division crown and run into the NLCS once Jeffress started to falter down the stretch, enough time has passed that it’s easy to forget that Knebel was so bad in the first part of 2018 that he had to be sent down to Triple-A.
That’s part of the reason why Knebel’s 2019 salary ended up being more affordable than you would’ve expected for a former All-Star closer with a 1.78 ERA, nearly-40 save season on his resume. It’s also a reason why Knebel is no guarantee to be a lockdown late-inning reliever upon his return if the Brewers decide to bring him back.
While Tommy John surgery has evolved to much more of a routine procedure, it’s still far from a sure thing. Knebel will have plenty of rust to shake off early, but one of the most recent updates on his rehab work we heard back in September said he hoped to get back on a mound in January. He may not be ready for a “true” Spring Training, but could possibly be ready to return sometime in April if all goes well.
If the Brewers knew they were getting an All-Star level relief pitcher back in 2020, a salary of just over $5 million would be a pretty obvious decision - sign him up and don’t look back. But things aren’t going to be that straightforward for the Brewers this offseason. Not only is Knebel’s performance post-surgery a bit of a gamble, but the organization is also facing a slew of arbitration and free agency decisions heading into a winter that could lead to a lot of roster turnover. Is $5 million on a single reliever the best use of resources as the team searches the couch cushions for enough change to make a multiyear offer for Yasmani Grandal or Mike Moustakas? Did the bullpen show enough without Knebel in 2019 to provide confidence they’d be okay without him again in 2020?
Luckily for the Brewers, Knebel’s rehab schedule lines up pretty nicely with their timeline for a decision. As long as his rehab stays on track during the offseason, it would seem to make sense to tender him a contract or sign him to a contract at his 2019 salary (as projected by MLB Trade Rumors) and see how he progresses in the spring. Since arbitration contracts aren’t fully guaranteed until the end of spring training, the Brewers should have plenty of time to evaluate him and see if he’ll be worth the full $5+ million.