Notes: Opening Day spot within Knebel's reach

July 10th, 2020

MILWAUKEE -- Former All-Star closer still must pass a series of tests as he completes his comeback from Tommy John surgery, starting with his first action in a Brewers scrimmage on Friday at Miller Park. But he’s trending toward making the team’s Opening Day roster, manager Craig Counsell confirmed.

“I think Corey’s stuff, from what I’ve seen in two [live batting practice] appearances this summer, is really good. It’s going to be back,” Counsell said. “We just need to build a base underneath him that allows him to recover as best he can as we go into the season.”

Knebel added to that base on Friday by throwing approximately 20 pitches on the Brewers’ third day of intrasquad games. He walked one batter and got a called strike three with one of Knebel’s big, bending curveballs.

For Knebel, it was the closest thing to appearing in a game since the 2018 National League Championship Series, though he said he did face Phillies outfielder Nick Williams and some Indians Minor Leaguers at home in Texas while baseball was paused due to the coronavirus. In a pair of live batting practice sessions, Knebel said he sat in the 92-94 mph range with his fastball. He was in the same neighborhood on Friday, a few ticks down from an average of 96.9 mph in 2018.

“I'm just trying to throw, and I'm sure everything would come,” Knebel said. “Of course, me, I was expecting upper-90s, maybe a couple of 102s, but I think that will come. I'm right where I need to be right now. Just trying to throw and get comfortable with it all.”

How is he feeling about his availability for Opening Day?

“I'm feeling very confident that I'll be ready to go,” Knebel said. “We've got [14] days, and I'm right where I need to be right now. I'm feeling really confident that I'll be there for the start of the season.”

Knebel was an NL All-Star in 2017, when he led the team with 76 appearances while logging a 1.78 ERA. In 2018 the road was a bit bumpier, but he rebounded from a rough stretch just in time to be one of the Brewers’ most valuable relievers in September and into the postseason against the Rockies and Dodgers, allowing no runs in 24 of his 25 appearances from Sept. 1 through the end of that year.

But his 2019 was derailed before it started by an elbow injury sustained in Spring Training. Knebel underwent surgery last April and was to miss the first month or more of the originally scheduled 2020 season while completing his rehab. When the coronavirus pandemic delayed the start of this season, it gave Knebel a chance to open on the active 30-man roster.

“We are definitely going to be careful with his usage -- I think everybody falls on that list right now,” Counsell said. “Corey might have a different set of rules, but I think that whole part of the game is going to be different for at least the first couple weeks of the season for every pitcher. But Corey’s coming back.”

More on 'Camp Appleton'
Catching prospect Payton Henry was notably absent when the Brewers added 12 names to their 60-man player pool on Thursday, meaning that for now, MLB Pipeline’s 16th-ranked Brewers prospect won’t get to participate at the team’s alternate training site in Appleton, Wis. Henry was not the only top prospect left off the list, but his omission was notable, because he’d participated in the Brewers’ big league Spring Training camp.

Others who attended big league camp left out to date: infielder Lucas Erceg, pitchers Thomas Jankins and Jesús Castillo, and more seasoned players Aaron Wilkerson and Tuffy Gosewisch.

“The issue is that the number is 60, and you have to leave people off. That’s the best way to say it,” Counsell said. “I think we have 58 right now. We’ve got two spots left. I think we wait and see what happens with this camp to determine where the next spots go.”

What does he hope some of the younger prospects will get from the Appleton experience?

“I think for all clubs, we’re searching for the best way to get at least some players development,” Counsell said. “Our traditional form of baseball development has been just to play as many games as you possibly can. It’s going to look different now. I think on the pitching side of it, pitch development is something you can get some feedback on. They might not get all the feedback the hitters give them, but with technology I think we can work on taking steps in pitch development for a younger pitcher like Antoine Kelly. It can be so valuable.

“I think there are going to be some really cool stories we hear on the back end of this thing -- and we may not hear these stories for a couple of years -- about the mentoring relationships that happen throughout this camp.”

Last call
• Left-hander Eric Lauer joined the Brewers’ Summer Camp for the first time on Friday after being sidelined by what Counsell described as a “non-COVID-related” illness. But Lauer’s arm health is sound, Counsell said, which is good news for the Brewers after Lauer was sidelined by a sore shoulder at the time Spring Training was suspended.

• Among the pitchers who stood out during the first two Summer Camp scrimmages was Wisconsin native J.P. Feyereisen, who pitched on Thursday. “He came back in really good shape,” Counsell said. “I think he worked hard during the time off. His velocity was actually up a little bit as compared to the earlier camp.”

• Over the past week, Brewers players have spoken about a vast array of experiences during baseball’s pause. Some had access to “live” settings for pitching and hitting. Some were limited to backyards and batting cages. Justin Smoak was mostly in the latter category; he didn’t see any live pitching before reporting to camp and hitting a home run in the first scrimmage.

“I think it’s more a mentality,” Smoak said. “I’m going to be honest, facing some of these guys we’ve got is not easy. I feel like everybody is throwing 95 to 100 mph. Hopefully, for us position players, facing these guys gets us ready a little quicker than most.”