MILWAUKEE -- Rather than risk delaying the inevitable, Brewers reliever Corey Knebel has opted to undergo Tommy John surgery for a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow and will not take part in Milwaukee’s defense of the National League Central crown.
Knebel will have the season-ending surgery Wednesday in Los Angeles with Dr. Neal ElAttrache. The typical recovery for an elbow reconstruction is one year.
“Right now, I’m 27, and I think it’s better to do it now than wait until later,” Knebel said. “I’ll come back for sure in a year. The success rate for Tommy John is unbelievable now, anyways. So that’s the decision I made. All the doctors were basically saying the same thing -- 'We can do it or not and you can see how you feel after [rehab], and then if it’s still not right, then you get [surgery].' Well, I’m out two years.
“I’d rather not miss two years. I’d rather miss one year. So that’s what I’m doing.”
Knebel was a unique case, in that he originally was diagnosed with a partially torn UCL in 2014 when he pitched for the Rangers. He opted for treatment over surgery then, and it worked. Knebel, who was traded to the Brewers the following January, made 216 appearances for Milwaukee from '15-18, including a National League-leading 76 appearances with a 1.78 ERA and 39 saves in '17, when he made the National League All-Star team.
Knebel reported discomfort after a March 17 Spring Training outing against the Dodgers, and subsequent testing showed additional UCL damage, but still not a full tear. That left Knebel with a difficult choice: undergo surgery now and target 2020 Opening Day or go the treatment route again and hope for a return sometime after the All-Star break.
“This is the more certain path,” Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns said. “The other path certainly provided a greater degree of unknown, and I know that’s part of what Corey struggled with -- the unknown.”
“It's a surgery that a lot of players have had a pretty high rate of success coming back from, and that's a good feeling,” Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell said. “He was told five years ago that he has a tear and this would happen eventually. He made it five years, so I think he has the right perspective on it.”
Knebel will rehab at the Brewers’ renovated training facility in Phoenix.
“I’ve been talking with him about the mental aspects, telling him what I went through emotionally, how teammates and coaches picked me up,” said Brent Suter, who underwent Tommy John surgery last July 31. “I’m sure everybody will do the same for him, knowing that the rehab rate and success rate is really high. He’s one of those guys who works hard all the time. He’s a role model for all of us in the ‘pen. We know he’s going to come back stronger than ever.”
Knebel joined Jeremy Jeffress (shoulder) on the Opening Day injured list, leaving Josh Hader as the lone active member of the Crew’s three-headed bullpen monster that was instrumental in the club’s run to Game 7 of last year’s National League Championship Series. Hader was extended to two innings in closing out the Brewers’ Opening Day 5-4 victory against the Cardinals. Jeffress is expected back sometime in April.
The Brewers are also without hard-throwing right-hander Bobby Wahl, who underwent ACL surgery and will miss the season. He was expected to contribute in the Majors this year.
“I think we’re still comfortable with what we have,” Stearns said. “I’ve said this before, and it’s always true: We’re always looking to get better. So if there are players out there who are a fit who will make us better, we’ll look for it. For right now, we think we have a group that can withstand this. We think we have guys who we think will step up.”
Of course, free-agent closer Craig Kimbrel is still available. The Brewers had talks with his agent, David Meter, during Spring Training, but it appears the sides are far apart on Kimbrel’s value.
“I’m not going to talk about any specific player,” Stearns said. “Clearly, if there are players out there who are going to make us better, we’re going to investigate it. But I’m not going to go into any more than that.”