May 23, 2014
The Situation: The Tigers bullpen has floundered out of the gate to the tune of a 4.22 ERA and a bunch of revolving doors for the last two spots. Enter Corey Knebel, the Tigers’ fifth-rated prospect according to Jason Parks' preseason ranking, and one of the best pure relief arms in the minors. Knebel will look to lock down the middle to late innings and hand the ball off to Joe Nathan.
Background: Selected in the compensatory first round (39th overall) in the 2013 draft out of the University of Texas, Knebel flew through the minors at a torrid pace after eviscerating the competition. In Low-A West Michigan last season, Knebel appeared in 31 games, allowed 14 hits, and struck out 41 with 15 saves, posting a .133 batting average against and a 0.87 ERA. After that stellar performance, he headed to the Arizona Fall League, where he 8 tossed 2/3 innings, surrendering four runs and striking out 11. To start this season, the Tigers gave Knebel an aggressive assignment to Double-A Erie—where he allowed two earned runs in 15 IP, striking out 23 with a WHIP of 1.06—before sending him to Triple-A Toledo for three appearances that spanned four scoreless innings.
Scouting Report: The Tigers selected Knebel with the intention of making him a starter. He has the arsenal, but his max-effort delivery and balls-to-the-wall style pushed him to the pen. The 6'3 right hander possesses a funky, high-¾ delivery with a quick arm swing, and he’s a short-burst guy through and through. There have been some concerns about his attitude in the past, stemming from two suspensions and other disciplinary incidents during his college career; however, I've heard nothing but good things regarding his character since his selection. The attitude issues seem to be behind him, and a little bit of quirkiness in a late-inning reliever has never been a bad thing.
Knebel’s fastball ranges from 92-97, but his comfort zone is the 94-95 MPH velocity band. The pitch has excellent tilt and isn't often squared up. He challenges often with the fastball, which has late life and generates swings-and-misses, and he isn't afraid to move it to all four quadrants of the strike zone. The fastball command can come and go, and that's the main point of instructions the Tigers have emphasized with Knebel this season. I’d give the fastball a 6, with a 6+ future.
Knebel also features a curveball, which is certainly in consideration for “plus plus” territory. It has two-plane movement with extremely tight spin and break; the pitch is a true hammer. It's a swing-and-miss offering in the majors at 79-82 mph, and Knebel has slightly better command of the curve than the fastball at present. He can shorten it up and throw it for strikes if needed, while using it as a chase pitch down and away to right-handed hitters or back foot to left-handed hitters.
Knebel also can work in a changeup, especially to lefties, which typically works in the low-to-mid 80s. He uses this pitch while warming up and brings it out in games if the rest of his arsenal is working correctly. He’ll probably throw it 5-7 percent of the time at the most, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him go to a two-pitch repertoire exclusively. (This season, he’s aleady scrapped his slider, which he used to throw in college.) Overall, Knebel has all of the ingredients to be a shutdown closer someday if he can refine his fastball command.
Immediate Big-League Future: Manager Brad Ausmus will likely ease Knebel into the bullpen in the sixth and seventh. However, I wouldn't be surprised if he (along with Joba Chamberlain) is entrusted with leads in the eighth down the stretch, as the Tigers don't have many reliable bullpen options. While he's relatively young at 22, Knebel is a competitor, and he wants the ball with the game on the line. —Jordan Gorosh
Fantasy Impact: Knebel is in an interesting position fantasy-wise, as he is a middle reliever who is currently blocked from fantasy relevance by a veteran closer. From a skillset perspective, Knebel has a closer's starter kit, as he uses an explosive fastball with life in conjunction with an absolute hammer of a curveball, a combination that has led to bullpen dominance at the minor-league level.
In the short term, you can expect Knebel to have a learning curve to overcome as he graduates to facing top-level competition. Relievers are unpredictable, and relief prospects are the ultimate wild card. I would take a wait-and-see approach with Knebel, as middle relievers are the definition of fungible fantasy assets, though I do expect him to strike out more than a batter per nine. In the long term, it's difficult not to fall in love with the arm and the professional results he's posted thus far. Nathan won't be around forever, and while I generally shy away from "Closer In Waiting" types, Knebel looks like a promising one. —Mauricio Rubio
Jordan Gorosh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @jgorosh