Corey Knebel Elects Tommy John Surgery
The dreaded news Brewers fans have been hoping to avoid came to fruition yesterday — Corey Knebel will have Tommy John surgery. He will miss the rest of the season. He is having the surgery to repair a torn UCL (ulnar collateral ligament) in his pitching elbow. His elbow has been experiencing discomfort since he was shut down in the middle of March. Doctor Neil Attrache, one of the most respected surgeons in baseball, will perform the surgery on Wednesday, April 3rd. Jimmy Nelson‘s shoulder repair was also done by Attrache.
From Injured UCL to All-Star
Knebel has had problems with his UCL for quite some time now. He originally hurt the elbow while he was with the Texas Rangers in the fall of 2014. In January of 2015, then-Brewers general manager Doug Melvin executed a trade bringing Knebel to the Brewers, along with Luis Sardinas and Marcos Diplan, in exchange for Yovani Gallardo. At that time, BrewCrewBall reported that Knebel’s elbow could be a problem in the future. He decided to rehab the elbow at that point. Attrache was his doctor at that time also. Knebel not only rehabbed successfully but broke out with an All-Star year. By the end of the season, he accumulated a line of .180/.291/.277/.568. He was electric, saving 39 out of 45 games — an 87% conversion rate. His ERA was a minuscule 1.78 in 76 innings pitched.
Knebel Made a Tough Choice
It was obvious that Knebel would need surgery at some point in his career. While his UCL was not torn completely, it would have still gotten worse with time. Why pursue surgery when the Brewers have World Series aspirations, though? Well, there are more factors and unknowns that factor in.
If Knebel pursued rehab, it would have taken him until mid-summer to see if it was successful. If it wasn’t, he would have had to undergo surgery anyway. Now, major surgery has been delayed. The recovery from Tommy John surgery is usually a little over a year. As a result, Knebel would miss two years instead of just one. Also, in the video below from MLB.TV, Knebel alluded to electing surgery at a younger age. The younger a person is, the better the healing process goes.
Unspoken Contract Ramifications
Knebel chose his words carefully at 15 seconds into the video. He went on to say he didn’t want it to hurt him in the long run. No doubt he is talking about his health, as mentioned above. However, one can’t help thinking that he was processing a lot more when he chose his words. He likely was thinking about how delaying the inevitable might hurt his earnings in the long run, as any player facing this situation would.
Knebel will be a free agent in 2022. After this year, he has two more years of arbitration. If Knebel misses all of 2019 and 2020 he has one year to prove himself before hitting free agency. This isn’t an ideal situation for someone who hasn’t pitched in two years and is coming off surgery. By choosing to do the surgery now, he doesn’t have as much time away from baseball and has an extra year to prove himself.
Additionally, if Knebel misses two years he risks making himself a non-tender candidate this winter. He is making $5.125 million this year. That is a lot of money for a salary-crunched team to pay for someone who will be missing the whole next year, even someone as good as Knebel. When examining the situation further, a non-tender in the event Knebel missed the 2020 season would be even more likely.
Possible Strike Complications
If the potential contract ramifications weren’t messy enough, the labor tensions further complicate the issue. The collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of the 2021 season. Tensions between players and owners are becoming heated, and the possibility of a strike during the 2021 season is a realistic one.
In the previous section, it discusses how only one chance for a player to prove himself coming off of a two-year hiatus and injury is not ideal. A strike in 2021 would cut Knebel’s time back even shorter.
The looming strike also makes it more likely that he is a non-tender. Part of the incentive for management to tender Knebel is that the team will have an extra year of control over him. If Knebel is going to miss 2020 and potentially 2021, why would the Brewers want to give him over $5 million in 2020?
From Knebel’s perspective, why should he risk all this uncertainty when he will need the surgery anyway? All things considered, Knebel navigated his way through some tough circumstances to a responsible decision.
Brewers’ Bullpen Depleted
The Brewers’ bullpen, normally considered a strength, has taken some early hits on the injury front. First, Bobby Wahl, acquired from the Mets in the Keon Broxton trade, tore his ACL while throwing a pitch. (It is very rare to tear an ACL while throwing.) Brewers general manager David Stearns announced when Wahl was acquired that he was expected to see time on the big league roster this season. The next reliever to suffer from the injury bug was Jeremy Jeffress, who experienced weakness in his shoulder and also was shut down. He is expected to return mid-to-late April.
Did Playoffs Contribute to Injuries?
Both Jeffress and Knebel were key for the Brewers in September and the playoffs. Are their injuries tied to their usage last year? Tom Haudricourt interviewed David Stearns on this question. Here is what Stearns had to say:
“In the case of Corey, we’re talking about a pre-existing injury that he had pitched with for four years. It was always possible at some time that it would become problematic, and we’ve gotten to that point. Did the deep run last year contribute to that? I don’t think anyone knows. I don’t think the doctors know.
“It’s natural that you think about it. But I don’t think we would have done anything differently, either then or afterward. Corey, in particular, came into camp feeling really good, and I think we saw that in his first three or four (exhibition) outings. He was throwing the ball exceptionally well. J.J. probably came into camp a little behind (physically) but he’s getting to the right spot now.”
While anything is possible, there is no pattern that emerges, outside of the fact that both were used heavily in the playoffs. One must remember too, that Bobby Wahl’s torn ACL throwing a pitch was a freakish injury. As of now, there is no solid evidence to support the theory that the injuries to Knebel and Jeffress were a result of overuse down the stretch last year.
The only certainty is that the unexpected always happens. For this reason, Corey Knebel made a responsible choice yesterday.
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