The Phillies believe they have found their closer for 2022.
Corey Knebel is sure they have.
So sure that he didn't want a two-year contract with the club.
"He said he'd rather sign a one-year deal to show people that he's a dominant closer again," Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said shortly after locking up the free-agent reliever for $10 million Wednesday, shortly before the business of baseball was expected to go into hibernation.
Dombrowski began the offseason with a lengthy list of needs. A big bat in left field. A center fielder. When pressed, he listed closer as his personal priority.
Though he stopped short of guaranteeing that Knebel would be the guy in 2022, Dombrowski sure sounded ready to see the 30-year-old right-hander work in the ninth inning. In fact, barring an unexpected opportunity, Dombrowski said he was no longer pursuing a closer.
"We think he can close games," Dombrowski said. "We did not promise him that. But we think he has the stuff and the makeup to do it and that's (what) we would envision him being for us."
Knebel was a dominant, All-Star closer for Milwaukee in 2017. He saved 39 games that season and struck out 14.9 batters per nine innings. He had 16 saves and struck out 14.3 batters per nine innings in 2018.
Injury struck in 2019. Knebel had Tommy John surgery and missed the entire season. He made it back for 15 games in 2020 but struggled before an offseason trade to the Dodgers. Injury struck again in 2021 as he missed three months with a lat strain. He made it back for the final two months and shined for the Dodgers in a setup role. He allowed five hits and one run while striking out 13 and walking just three in 10⅓ innings in September.
The signing comes with risk; Knebel has pitched just 39 innings the last two regular seasons. And, from Mike Jackson to Mike Adams to David Roberston, the Phillies have been burned by injuries to free-agent relievers in the past.
The Phils are comfortable with this risk and believe that Knebel has significant upside. The Texas native had an extensive physical exam in Philadelphia on Wednesday.
"Like a lot of guys coming off Tommy John, sometimes it takes you time to regain your stuff," Dombrowski said. "Our scouts saw him (in 2021) and all of his stuff matches up to what it was in the past.
"He's got an above-average fastball, an above-average breaking ball and the demeanor on the mound. I mean, you're concerned about the health in the sense that you're checking it out and doing your procedures with the medical information, but, really, our doctors and trainers felt very good about his medicals."
Knebel will join holdovers Jose Alvarado, Connor Brogdon, Seranthony Dominguez and Sam Coonrod in the bullpen, and the team is hoping that a recent trade or waiver pickup like Nick Nelson, Ryan Sherriff, Kent Emanuel or Yoan Lopez emerges as a contributor. Still, the Phillies will need more to fortify a bullpen that has lost Hector Neris and tied a major-league record with 34 blown saves in 2021.
"We're going to continue to explore and see what makes sense for us as we go through the wintertime," Dombrowski said. "We've got a guy that we think will close games for us and that's a big start. But we'll continue to explore out there as we'll continue to explore at other positions, too."
Filling remaining needs on the team, of course, will take some time. The labor agreement between MLB owners and the players association expired at midnight and a lockout is expected. That will come with a freeze on transactions.
Dombrowski said he had no idea how long the lockout would last, but he sounded confident that the business of baseball would resume in time for teams to finish their offseason work. The Phillies still need two outfielders.
The expected freeze on transactions produced a flurry of free-agent signings in recent days, but Dombrowski said he did not feel added pressure to get a deal with Knebel or anyone else done. According to sources, the team had extensive talks with free-agent slugger Kyle Schwarber, but he apparently will wait out the freeze.
"We didn't feel an urgency, but we also knew that if we didn't get (Knebel) done that it was going to take a while," Dombrowski said. "As we continued to make progress, we were glad. I mean, he was a guy that we talked about right away. We really like his stuff and like his makeup.
"We talked to other people, as well. We talked free agency, we talked trades. We had a lot of active talks, but that was it.
"You could see by the amount of the moves that were made, the pace was pretty strong, and we were just as involved in it as anybody else. There's still a long time in the winter. There's still plenty of time to get things done once we get back."