Dave Dombrowski said the Phillies would have liked to sign Corey Knebel to a contract longer than the one-year pact he signed on Wednesday.
“But, to tell you his own mindset, he said he’d rather sign a one-year deal to show people he’s a closer Dominant again to put him in a different position,” Dombrowski said.
The Phillies gave Knebel $10 million, but didn’t promise the right-hander — a closer All-Star in 2017 with Milwaukee — that he would handle ninth-inning duties. However, Dombrowski said the pitcher comes to Philadelphia with the belief that he will be responsible for the final outs.
“We think he can close games,” Dombrowski said. “I think that’s why he signed here. We didn’t promise him that. We just told him he would be a backend for us. But we think he’s got what it takes and he’s healthy, and when he’s been healthy he’s got what it takes to do that and he’s got the makeup to do that, so it’s is how we would envision it for us.
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Knebel, 30, has worked the past two seasons mostly in the seventh and eighth innings and was used by the Dodgers as their playoff opener. His contract was finalized just hours before the looming expiration of the league’s collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union, which is expected to trigger a lockout and freeze deals.
Knebel has been limited to 39 innings the past three seasons. Tommy John’s surgery cost him the entire 2019 season and a strained back muscle sidelined him last season for three months. He was injured in April and posted a 1.83 ERA in 19 regular season appearances upon his return.
“It’s like a lot of guys coming out of Tommy John, sometimes it takes you a while to find your stuff, but his stuff was definitely there,” Dombrowski said. “Our scouts have seen him and all of his stuff is really what it was in the past. He has an above average fastball, above average breaking ball and demeanor on the mound.
“I mean, you’re concerned about health in the sense that you check her and do your procedures by checking medicals, but really, our doctors and our coaches felt very good with her medicals.”
Knebel struggled in 2020 with the Brewers, who traded him to the Dodgers before last season to lose his salary. He’s turned his career around by relying more on his curve ball, which has one of the highest turnover rates at the majors. Knebel pairs his biting curveball with a fastball that peaked last season at 98 mph, giving him the arsenal to tackle high-leverage outings.
Dombrowski said last month that finding a closer was his top priority this offseason, so it could be telling that Knebel was the first free agent the team signed. He said he would be “thrilled” if Knebel was the best option to shut down by the time spring training begins.
“I mean, we’re confident he can do it, yeah,” said Dombrowski, who drafted Knebel with Detroit in 2013 and traded him a year later to Texas. “Now I don’t know who else can’t be signed and we might be able to try and acquire eventually. It’s still early winter, but we’re not necessarily going to be looking any closer for the moment.
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The Phillies signed Knebel just a day after Houston introduced Héctor Neris, who joined the Astros on a two-year, $17 million deal. If Knebel isn’t the closest, he could replace Neris as a preparer, a role Neris thrived in last season after being ousted in the ninth inning.
The Phillies now appear to have five relievers — Knebel, José Alvarado, Connor Brogdon, Sam Coonrod and Seranthony Dominguez — locked in for next season. They claimed four relievers — lefties Ryan Sherriff, Kent Emmanuel, Scott Moss and right-hander Yoan Lopez — with no waivers last month and they could earn a job during spring training.
It’s safe to expect them to add another reliever – perhaps a genuine closer like Craig Kimbrel – once the lockdown is lifted. The bullpen broke a franchise-record 34 saves last season and has the fourth-highest average (4.84) over the past three seasons. The relief throw has long been a point of contention, making it a priority to improve this offseason.
Knebel struck out 10.5 over nine innings last season, which is above the league average for relievers, but down from the 14.7 over nine he struck out in 2017 and 2018 as he was one of the best relievers in baseball. The Phillies may have seen enough of Knebel’s late-season push with the Dodgers to think he can return to that form.
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Knebel closed out two games last April for the Dodgers as they watched the use of Kenley Jensen and a 10-pitch save against the Nationals offered a glimpse of Knebel’s arsenal. He only threw two fastballs and used his curveball to take out each of the three batters he faced. He was dominant. Three weeks later, he was injured.
The Phillies not only made a bet Wednesday that Knebel can be a dominant reliever, but also that he can stay healthy. If so, they’ve found a centerpiece for the bullpen in whatever role it’s given.
“When he’s healthy like he is, and we’ve seen him pitch at the end of the year, he has closer stuff and not just stuff – the mentality,” Dombrowski said.