Injuries forced the Brewers to go in a different direction with their closer in 2019. Could this season see them change closers yet again?
Things looked pretty good for manager Craig Counsell’s Brewers bullpen going into 2019 Spring Training. Many of the top pieces were returning from a unit that finished tied for 4th in the MLB in ERA during the 2018 regular season.
One of those returning players was Corey Knebel. The 2017 All-Star returned from a brief, late-season demotion to Triple-A in 2018 to reclaim his closing role and proceed to give up just one run in 26 1/3 combined innings pitched between September and the postseason.
Another key returning piece was Josh Hader. The fire-balling lefty was so effective in his role of specifically facing the opposing team’s best hitters in late innings in 2018, that he made his first career All-Star appearance, finished with a 2.43 ERA and blistering 15.8 K/9, and took home the National League Reliever of the Year award.
Most expected the two to fill those same roles going into 2019. Unfortunately, those plans were ruined when Knebel suffered an arm injury during Spring Training, which would require Tommy John surgery and result in him missing the entire regular season.
Hader would end up being slotted into the closer’s role for the year. While he had his rough patches – his 15 homers given up were tied for fifth most of any reliever in the MLB – he still finished with a 2.62 ERA and actually improved his K/9 to 16.4 on his way to a second straight NL Reliever of the Year title.
2020 started off with it looking like the Brewers would be starting the season with just Hader available out of the two and continuing as the team’s closer. But now that the season’s start has been delayed, Counsell might want to rethink that strategy.
How is Knebel’s health?
Had this season started when it was supposed to start, Knebel was predicted to likely miss at least the first month of games. With Opening Day being pushed so far forward due to COVID-19, that is apparently no longer the case, at least according to Knebel himself.
Brewers GM David Stearns seemed to sound cautiously optimistic earlier in June as well. According to Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Stearns said:
"“I think he’s getting pretty close,” Stearns said. “But, until someone is put in actual competition, with the adrenaline of actual competition, it’s very difficult to say you’re all clear. Because of the hiatus, Corey has not been in actual competition.“Once we’re able to get things started, hopefully, we can get him some live action against hitters and progress him forward so he can be full-go when the season starts.”"
The fact that Knebel was included when the Brewers released their Summer Camp roster on Monday should reinforce the fact that Knebel is expected to contribute quickly. That provides some interesting options for the back end of the bullpen.
Who ends up as the closer?
The easy answer would be to just leave Hader in as closer. He is clearly the team’s best relief option, and what better way to ensure you win games than by having that player close them out. Knebel would also be one heck of a setup man.
But re-inserting Knebel as the final out-getter could prove to be the more prudent move for the Brewers. Knebel’s 2017 season, in which he had 39 saves and a 1.78 ERA, was incredible in its own right and he was incredibly effective to end 2018. With Hader being amazing two years ago as well, why not return to a formula that worked?
I tend to prefer the option that worked so well to end 2018. But the reality may be that Counsell uses a combination of both options. 2020 will be a season like no other with little margin for error in a 60-game season. As a result, Counsell’s bullpen decision may look much less traditional than normal.
The closer’s role is just one of many roster and depth chart decisions that will need to be made over the next few weeks of MLB Summer Camp. Stay tuned at Reviewing the Brew as we break them all down.