Corey Knebel is on a fast track through the Tiger organization; destination- Detroit. The Tigers promoted Knebel, a 22 year old right handed relief pitcher, to triple-A Toledo this past weekend, just as the Tiger bullpen was letting a lead slip away in a loss to the Minnesota Twins on Sunday.
Knebel was drafted by the Tigers out of the University of Texas just last June. He was selected with 39th overall, with the "competitive balance" pick that they received in the trade that brought Anibal Sanchez from Miami in exchange for former first rounder Jacob Turner and catcher Rob Brantly. The 6 foot 3 right hander started out at low-A West Michigan, where he posted an ERA of 0.87 and an 0.77 WHIP in 31 appearances, striking out 41 batters while walking only 10.
The Tigers decided to let Knebel skip high-A Lakeland and start this season out at double-A Erie, where he has an ERA of 1.20, a WHIP of 1.06 with 8 walks and 23 strikeouts in just 15 innings of work. He has held opponents to a .133 average.
Jordan Gorosh ranked Knebel as the No 6 Tiger prospect, and recently wondered how long they could keep him down in the minors. Jordan had this to say about Knebel:
Knebel features a 92-97 mile-per-hour fastball, with plenty of tilt and some arm side wiggle. It has very good life, and doesn't often get squared. He's not afraid to challenge, and when he's right, can spot this pitch to all four quadrants of the zone. His fastball command, while not perfect, is definitely advanced for a guy his age, and if we're being really honest here, would probably be second best on the Tigers right now to Joe Nathan. He has a hard breaking ball in the low 80s with bite and two plane movement. I don't really care what you call it: a slider, a slurve, a curve, a gyroball, whatever. All I know is that this pitch is a true plus pitch, with the potential to wreak havoc on major league hitters. He can also fade a change up if he wants to, but it's more of a show-me pitch at this point, although I've seen him toss it for strikes.
The bullpen has been the area of greatest concern for the Tigers in the 2014 season, as they collectively own a 4.93 ERA, third highest in the American League. Even if you toss out the first two weeks, where Joe Nathan and Joba Chamberlain were off to a rough start, the Tiger pen has a collective 4.71 ERA.
While much of the damage has been done in lower leverage innings, where the likes of Jose Ortega and Phil Coke have been brought in for mop duty, and while the Tigers have blown just four leads in the seventh inning or later, the team is still looking for a few good men to nail down the lead in the late innings, when their ACEs have been played.
Nathan has two of the four blown saves, both early in the first week of the season, and both fortunately resulted in Tiger wins. The third came when Ian Krol gave up a grand slam, one of three home runs he has allowed this season, after Evan Reed loaded the bases with White Sox in the seventh inning, and the team went on to lose that contest. The fourth blown save was on Sunday, when Krol and Al Alburquerque gave up a run in the seventh, and Chamberlain gave up three in the eighth with the help of some shoddy outfield defense, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
While Chamberlain and Nathan have settled down nicely for the most part, the rest of the relief corps has been anything but consistent. Joel Hanrahan is expected in Detroit some time in late June, and Luke Putkonen is on a rehab assignment, but there is no guarantee that they will be any steadier.
Knebel has been dominant in the minor leagues. If he continues his dominance in Toledo, it probably won't be long until he makes his major league debut. The Tigers will have to make room on the 40 man roster for him, but that shouldn't be an issue.