When the 2019 regular season opens next week, the Milwaukee Brewers will be without two of their three primary end-game relievers. Josh Hader is healthy, but Jeremy Jeffress has been slowed by a sore shoulder and Corey Knebel has an elbow issue.

Jeffress was able to throw a bullpen Thursday and manager Craig Counsell said he is expected to join the team sometime in April following a brief stint on the injured list. The Knebel situation is much more worrisome. He has a damaged ulnar collateral ligament and is going for a second opinion. Tommy John surgery is a possibility but not a certainty.

Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has the details on Knebel's injury:

"There's an issue with the UCL," manager Craig Counsell said after the Brewers' 11-5 exhibition victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers. "He's going to get a second opinion. Then we're going to make a course of action. That's right now where we're at."

Counsell said Knebel had been pitching with a damaged UCL, presumably since originally hurting his elbow in 2014 while in Detroit's system. He indicated it is not a complete tear, which would require Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery and an absence of about a year.

"We don't know that," Counsell said of Knebel possibly needing that procedure. "Corey has pitched with this for a long time. We've got to figure out what's there, what's new. Make sure we get the right answer and then move forward."

Even if Tommy John surgery is not required, Knebel will miss several weeks with his elbow issue. Pitchers don't go from getting a second opinion on a partial UCL tear one week to being on the active big league roster the next week. Even slight ligament tears require treatment and weeks of rehab. Knebel is going to miss some time even in the best case scenario.

In addition to Jeffress and Knebel, the Brewers will also be without hard-throwing bullpen sleeper Bobby Wahl, who suffered a fluke knee injury earlier in spring training. Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta and Brandon Woodruff are all ticketed for the rotation, leaving Counsell and the Brewers with this projected Opening Day relief bullpen:

In all likelihood Hader will not be married to the ninth inning while Jeffress and Knebel are sidelined. Counsell has proven adept at leveraging his relievers, so chances are there will be times he uses Hader against the other team's best hitters in the seventh and eighth innings, leaving the ninth inning to someone else. Milwaukee's bullpen roles aren't too rigid.

Earlier this week it was reported the Brewers were talking to free agent closer Craig Kimbrel, though the reports conflicted. One indicated talks were serious, another indicated the Brewers were only doing their due diligence. Brewers GM David Stearns was certainly opportunistic over the winter, signing Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas to one-year contracts when their markets collapsed. Trying to do the same with Kimbrel makes perfect sense.

And, with Jeffress out temporarily and Knebel out presumably more long-term, Kimbrel has quickly gone from a potential luxury item to something of a necessity for the Brewers. They're designed to get good enough starting pitching, out-slug their opponents, and then smother them with the bullpen in the late innings. That bullpen has now been compromised quite a bit. Even if Jeffress returns soon, losing Knebel is a big blow.

The Brewers won 96 games a year ago and finished with the best record in the National League. The various projection systems don't expect them to be quite as formidable going into this season. Check it out:


Projected W-LProjected NL Central FinishProjected Wild Card Finish

FanGraphs

83-79

3rd (5 GB)

4th (2 GB of WC spot)

PECOTA

88-74

1st (+2 GB)

N/A (+1 GB on WC spot)

SportsLine

87-75

T-2nd (5 GB)

T-1st (+3 GB on WC spot)


Even if you believe projection systems are hogwash because they all missed on the Royals that one year, I think we can all agree the NL Central is going to be very competitive this season. The Cardinals are much improved and I'm not ready to bury a Cubs team that won 95 games a year ago despite so much going wrong (Yu Darvish was hurt, everyone stopped hitting in September, etc.) That division will be grind all season.

The Brewers are at a very delicate spot on the win curve. The NL Central race figures to be very tight, meaning every win the Brewers (or Cardinals or Cubs) add to their roster has a tremendous impact. Odds of winning the division are that much better. It's one thing to add a win and go from 95 to 96 wins when you're already division favorites, or to go from 75 to 76 wins when you're rebuilding. When you're in a division race and you can go from, say, 90 to 91 wins, that is potentially huge.

We know with certainty Jeffress will miss the start of the regular season and we can assume Knebel will miss several weeks with his damaged UCL. That means (theoretically) inferior relievers will be pushed into close games/high-leverage situations in their absence. Instead of Barnes and Williams being Counsell's No. 4 and 5 relievers, they're now his No. 2 and 3 relievers. It's a big difference, a difference Kimbrel can help make up.

Signing Kimbrel would likely push Petricka to Triple-A and again give Counsell that freedom to use Hader as a multi-inning setup weapon. He'd no longer have to worry about the ninth inning. The difference between Kimbrel and Petricka, the reliever he'd presumably replace, could equal several additional wins. Two or three, perhaps, maybe even four or five should Kimbrel have a 2017 Kimbrel season rather than a 2018 Kimbrel season in 2019.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Boston Red Sox
Craig Kimbrel has gone from a potential luxury to almost a necessity for the Brewers. USATSI

The potential hangup here is not need. There's always room for another high-quality reliever in the bullpen and, with Jeffress and Knebel hurt, the Brewers could clearly use another end-game arm. The potential hangup is money. Cot's Baseball Contracts has the Brewers with a projected $121.7 million Opening Day payroll. That is up roughly $30 million from last year. On one hand, props to the Brewers for raising payroll and trying to improve. That's how it should work when you're in their position.

On the other hand, the Brewers are also set to have the largest payroll in franchise history this season. Milwaukee is baseball's smallest market and stretching payroll any further could prove difficult, maybe even impossible, especially since Kimbrel likely wants to at least match the one-year, $17.9 million qualifying offer he rejected early in the offseason. Should it get to the point where Kimbrel is open to taking, say, Moustakas money (one year, $10 million), I think half the league would try to get in on it.

Every contender could use Craig Kimbrel in their bullpen and the Brewers are an especially good fit now that two of their top late-inning relievers are hurt, one potentially long-term. The NL Central race figures to be very tight again, so anything the club can do to separate themselves from the pack is worthwhile. Financially, it might not work. At this point though, signing Kimbrel feels more like a necessity for the Brewers. It no longer looks like a potential luxury.