Baseball fans debate the value of the “lock-down closer” to no end; it can’t be argued, however, that Dave Dombrowski covets power arms when draft time rolls around.
Enter Corey Knebel, the Tigers “sandwich” pick this past June, 39th overall out of the University of Texas. While working the back end of the ‘pen for the Longhorns, Knebel approached longtime MLB closer Huston Street’s team record for saves. His arsenal includes a 96-mph heater, sharp curveball, and the occasional changeup.
Knebel’s wares have been on display at West Michigan this summer for the Class A Whitecaps. While post-draft commentary indicated Detroit would like to eventually convert him to a starter, the 21-year old stepped into the closer role and has been virtually untouchable – 0.68 ERA, 12 H and 8 BB allowed in 26 innings; 12.3 K/9 and a 4.5 K/BB ratio. Entering last night’s game with a 6-2 cushion, Knebel didn’t nibble – sawing off the first batter on a nubber to first, then punching out the next two on knee-buckling called third strikes.
Compared to Bruce Rondon’s work for the Whitecaps, Knebel looks positively polished. Rondon’s lack of command repeatedly got him into trouble in his age-20 season at West Michigan, walking 34 in 40 IP. Rondon fanned 61 batters, but the free passes clogging the bases came around to score too frequently. Touching 103 on the gun will certainly buy a hurler a pretty long leash, but will Rondon ever harness his stuff enough to be a trustworthy 9th-inning option?
Apparently right now the plan is to mold Knebel into starter material, which means perfecting the changeup and perhaps developing another pitch, while building up his strength and stamina; not to mention throttling back the adrenaline that a closer thrives upon. A noble experiment, but one that seems destined to fail (Aroldis Chapman and Joba Chamberlain are two recent examples).
Why not keep him on the fast track to the majors – especially in a position that the big league squad is in an obvious position of need? Knebel has played 4 years of big-time college ball – he won’t have much to prove in the minors if his stuff holds up and he keeps pouring it over the plate. If Rondon isn’t able to nail down saves, that leaves a huge gap in future team plans – and that also means he is most valuable as a trade chip right now – while that radar gun is lighting up and his vast potential is on display.
Let the pennant race resume, and we can return to this topic over the Hot Stove this winter.