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Brewers seek relief for Knebel, eye Wilson

Veteran righty opted out of Minor League deal with Indians
March 23, 2019

PHOENIX -- The Brewers were poised to sign veteran reliever Alex Wilson on Friday while gathering more information on Corey Knebel's ailing elbow, all while the rest of the team's relievers vowed to do their part for a bullpen in a state of flux. Wilson agreed to a Major League

PHOENIX -- The Brewers were poised to sign veteran reliever Alex Wilson on Friday while gathering more information on Corey Knebel's ailing elbow, all while the rest of the team's relievers vowed to do their part for a bullpen in a state of flux.

Wilson agreed to a Major League contract pending a physical exam, which manager Craig Counsell said he passed on Saturday. The 32-year-old right-hander, who just opted out of a Minor League deal with the Indians, was durable and effective for the Tigers over the past four seasons, with a 3.20 ERA and at least 59 appearances each year. MLB Network insider Jon Heyman reported the pact would pay $750,000 plus incentives if completed. The club has not officially confirmed the deal.

Wilson would help cover the early-season void left by Knebel, a 2017 All-Star, and Jeremy Jeffress, a 2018 All-Star, both of whom will begin the regular season on the injured list. Jeffress, set back several weeks ago by arm weakness, had forward momentum as of Friday morning after returning to a mound on Thursday for a bullpen session. The Brewers are hopeful he'll be back in the Major Leagues by mid-April. Knebel, meanwhile, was setting plans for second and third opinions of a damaged UCL in his right elbow and faces a longer absence.

"I think it's big league experience. Depth. Adding another body to the mix," Counsell said after the Brewers' 6-4 win over the Reds. "Improving our depth, I think, is a big deal at this point, when it looks like we’ve got Bobby [Wahl] out for definitely the whole season and we’re going to miss Corey for a chunk of the season.”

Knebel's injury is a "grey area," Counsell said, because he pitched the past four years with a compromised UCL. The Brewers knew about the injury when they acquired Knebel from the Rangers in January 2015, and he was able to rehab without surgery and enjoyed a series of successful seasons before the elbow re-aggravated on Sunday following an appearance against the Dodgers.

"We'll get the best people to look at it, and then put together a recommendation," Counsell said. "Then he's going to make a decision."

History offers examples of pitchers in similar situations who experienced different outcomes. Tyler Thornburg successfully treated a slight UCL tear with platelet-rich plasma injections beginning in June 2014, and he bounced back to have solid seasons for the Brewers in 2015 and especially in 2016 (67 games, 2.15 ERA) before being shipped to Boston for a package headlined by Travis Shaw. Brewers prospect Taylor Williams tried similar treatment for months before finally having Tommy John surgery in August 2015. Because of the delay, he wound up missing two full seasons.

"The MRI on mine didn’t really show that there's a definitive tear in there, so for me, I went the rehab route and my elbow just wasn't able to respond to that very well," said Williams, who has two healthy seasons and 61 big league appearances in the books since then, and is poised to make his first Opening Day roster. "A lot of guys have gone [the rehab] route and they've come back strong from it, and they haven't had to worry about getting surgery.

"That's what looks promising for [Knebel]. I hope that's what he can do."

Knebel was still at American Family Fields of Phoenix as of Friday morning, but he has been unavailable for comment since news broke of his injury. One of his second opinions is expected to come from noted orthopedist Dr. Neal ElAttrache, probably next week.

"I think [Knebel's] in a good position mentally, and that's the biggest thing," said Josh Hader, the only healthy member of the trio, also including Jeffress and Knebel, dubbed by Counsell as the "Electric Dudes" at the start of camp. "We've got his back. Just be there for him. The sucky thing about it is you know we're pitchers and things are definitely going to happen to our arms. That's just the nature of the beast."

The Brewers face a grueling start to the season, with 24 of their first 33 games against the Cardinals, Cubs, Dodgers and Rockies. But they do have recent experience covering for early-season injuries in the bullpen. Last April, Knebel suffered a hamstring injury that sidelined him five weeks, and players like Jeffress, Matt Albers and Jacob Barnes filled the void.

After Knebel complained of discomfort, president of baseball operations David Stearns intensified his search for reinforcements. Before Wilson, Stearns picked up veteran righty Josh Fields earlier in the week, though Fields will begin the season at Triple-A San Antonio. The Brewers have also reportedly had talks with seven-time All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel, who remains a free agent.

"It's going to take an army," Hader said. "We're going to have guys coming up, new arms, fresh arms, and I think that's the biggest thing -- knowing that it's going to take everybody to get where we need to be."

Hader has more than enough stuff to be a closer, though the Brewers have learned that he functions best when he gets the sort of rest not always afforded a pitcher in that role. Wilson brings extensive late-inning experience, and Albers has also worked in high-leverage spots in his career.

In 2017 with the Nationals, when Albers posted a 1.62 ERA, 55 2/3 of Albers' 61 innings were logged in the seventh inning or later. He earned a two-year deal from the Brewers the following offseason.

"Everybody has to step up," Albers said. "Obviously, Hader is going to do what he does. Hopefully, I can fit in where I did in the beginning of last year, in the back end, and pick up some of those big outs."

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for since 2001. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram and like him on Facebook.