Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Phillies sign reliever Corey Knebel to one-year contract

The re-construction of the bullpen received its first addition in Knebel, who the Phillies believe can close games.

Corey Knebel was an All-Star closer in 2017 with Milwaukee.
Corey Knebel was an All-Star closer in 2017 with Milwaukee.Read moreWally Skalij / MCT

Dave Dombrowski said the Phillies would have liked to sign Corey Knebel to a longer deal than the one-year pact he inked on Wednesday.

“But, to tell you his own mindset, he said he’d rather sign a one-year deal to show people that he’s a dominant closer again to put him in a different spot,” Dombrowski said.

The Phillies gave Knebel $10 million, but did not promise the right-hander — an All-Star closer in 2017 with Milwaukee — that he would handle the ninth-inning duties. However, Dombrowski said the pitcher is coming 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 did not promise him that. We just told him that he’d be a backend person for us. But we think he has the stuff and he’s healthy, and when he has been that, he has the stuff to do that and he has the makeup to do that, so that’s how we would envision him being for us.”

» READ MORE: Inside Phillies’ offseason: Key dates, roster moves, free agency and more

The 30-year-old Knebel has worked worked the past two seasons mostly in the seventh and eighth innings and was used by the Dodgers as an opener in the postseason. His contract was finalized just hours before the pending expiration of the league’s collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union, which is expected to cause a lockout and put a freeze on transactions.

Knebel has been limited to 39 innings over the past three seasons. Tommy John surgery cost him the entire 2019 season and a strained back muscle sidelined him last season for three months. He suffered the injury in April and posted a 1.83 ERA over 19 regular-season appearances upon returning.

“It’s like a lot of guys coming off Tommy John, sometimes it takes you time to regain your stuff, but his stuff was definitely there,” Dombrowski said. “Our scouts saw him and all of his stuff really matches up to what it was in the past. He’s got an above average fastball, an above average breaking ball, and the demeanor on the mound.

“I mean, you’re concerned about the health in the sense that you’re checking it out and doing your procedures checking out the medical information but really, our doctors and trainers felt very good with his medicals.”

Knebel struggled in 2020 with the Brewers, who traded him to the Dodgers before last season to shed salary. He righted his career by leaning more on his curveball, which has one of the higher spin rates in the majors. Knebel pairs his biting curveball with a fastball that topped out last season at 98 mph, giving him the arsenal to tackle high-leverage outs.

Dombrowski said last month that finding a closer was his top offseason priority, 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 top option to close by the time spring training begins.

“I mean, we have confidence that he can do that, yes,” said Dombrowski, who drafted Knebel with Detroit in 2013 and traded him a year later to Texas. “Now, I’m not sure who else may not be signed and we may eventually be in a position to try to acquire. It’s still early in the winter time, but we’re not necessarily going after a closer at this time.”

» READ MORE: Tax? What tax? Perhaps the Phillies should follow the Mets’ bold strategy

The Phillies signed Knebel just a day after Houston introduced Héctor Neris, who joined the Astros on a two-year deal worth $17 million. If Knebel is not the closer, he could replace Neris as the set-up man, a role Neris thrived in last season after he was bumped from 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 — left-handers Ryan Sherriff, Kent Emmanuel, Scott Moss, and right-hander Yoan Lopez — off waivers last month and they could earn a job during spring training.

It’s safe to expect them to add another reliever — perhaps a bona fide closer like Craig Kimbrel — once the lockout is lifted. The bullpen blew a franchise-record 34 saves last season and has the fourth-highest ERA (4.84) over the past three seasons. The relief pitching has long been a point of contention, making it a priority to upgrade this offseason.

Knebel struck out 10.5 batters per nine innings last season, which is above the league average for relievers but down from the 14.7 per nine he struck out in 2017 and 2018 when he was one of baseball’s premier relievers. The Phillies may have seen enough in Knebel’s late-season push with the Dodgers to think he can return to that form.

» READ MORE: Phillies’ challenge in ‘next step’: Don’t waste prime years of their star core

Knebel closed two games last April for the Dodgers while they monitored the usage of Kenley Jensen and a 10-pitch save against the Nationals offered a glimpse into Knebel’s arsenal. He threw just two fastballs and used his curveball to strike out each of the three batters he faced. He was dominant. Three weeks later, he was hurt.

The Phillies not only made a bet Wednesday that Knebel can be a dominant reliever but also that he can remain healthy. If so, they found a key piece for the bullpen, no matter the role he is given.

“When he’s healthy like he is, and we saw him pitch at the end of the year, he has closer stuff and not only stuff — mentality,” Dombrowski said.