Every Monday, Baseball America will take a look at a prospect who is either just arriving to the majors or on the cusp of the majors to give a look at what can be expected from them both as a player and for fantasy purposes.
Throughout his career, Jimmy Nelson has always managed to slide from the shadows to the spotlight. Heading into his junior year at Alabama, he was overshadowed by teammates Josh Rutledge and Ross Wilson, but by the draft had emerged as the Crimson Tide’s top draft prospect.
Taken by the Brewers in the second round in 2010, he was supposed to be overshadowed by first-round righthander Dylan Covey. But when Covey opted not to sign with the Brewers, Nelson became the Brewers’ top pick from that draft.
In 2012, Nelson was joined in the high Class A Brevard County rotation by Brewers’ 2011 first-round picks Jed Bradley and Taylor Jungmann. But it was Nelson who quickly pitched his way out of Brevard County while the other two struggled.
Now in 2014, Nelson is undisputedly the top pitching prospect in the Brewers’ system. After a solid 10 innings in the Brewers’ bullpen last September, he’s showing he’s big league ready as a starter with a 5-1, 1.71 start to the season with Triple-A Nashville. Nelson has struck out exactly a batter an inning, with 58 strikeouts in 58 innings. After walking 5.40 batters per nine innings in Nashville last year, he’s reduced that number to a much more manageable 2.6 walks per nine innings this season.
Nelson is a very big (6-foot-6, 240-pound) righthander with power stuff and a power approach. He can run his four-seam fastball up to 94-95 mph, but his success is based more on locating his low-90s two-seamer, which has excellent sink and generates lots of weak contact and ground balls.
When he’s locating the fastball, it also sets up an above-average slider that is an effective out pitch. As a reliever last September, that two-pitch combo held righthanded hitters hitless, as they went 0-for-15.
Nelson’s weakness has always been his struggles to retire lefthanded hitters. Last year, lefties had a .715 OPS compared to righthanders’ .585 OPS. As a fastball/slider righthander, Nelson has had similar platoon problems throughout his pro career, and it’s led to some speculation that he’d end up as a power reliever instead of a starter.
This year in the early going, Nelson has done a good job of rectifying his biggest weakness. Lefties have a .453 OPS against him this year, even better than the .529 OPS he’s allowing against righthanded hitters. Although Nelson throws a changeup, its improvement has not played a major factor in his newfound ability to handle lefties. More importantly, he’s been able to locate his fastball to both sides of the plate. With improved ability to throw his fastball for strikes and to get in on the hands of lefthanded hitters with his fastball, he’s kept them from getting comfortable at the plate.
Nelson has also shown an ability to throw his changeup to righthanders to keep them off balance. While they have to be more aware of his power stuff, the changeup has been a useful if still fringy third offering.
Thanks to his improved control, Nelson is working deeper into games. He’s worked at least six innings in every start this year.
What To Expect
Throughout his career, Nelson has had a history of making adjustments after initial struggles whenever he arrives in a new league. He walked more than seven batters per nine innings in his first stay in Double-A in 2012, then walked less than two per nine while upping his strikeout rate in his return to Huntsville in 2013. A similar problem/recovery happened with Nelson’s initial struggles in Triple-A last year followed by his dominance in the early going this year.
Nelson has the stuff to make a smoother transition than that when he arrives as a big league starter. Although still prone to overthrowing, it’s usually a pitch or two before he regains his delivery now. He throws strikes and his two-seam fastball is good enough that when he does get behind in the count, he can throw it over the plate for weak contact. Nelson has allowed only one home run this year and only three in his last 150 innings.
With a heavy fastball that keeps the ball in the park, improved control and an increased ability to get lefties out, Nelson has a chance to be a solid middle-of-the-rotation addition to the Brewers’ rotation at some point. The Brewers are surprisingly leading the National League Central, so if Nelson does come up, he should be able to produce wins and strikeouts with a solid WHIP and ERA. He’s one of the better starting pitching prospects to arrive this summer when he does get the call.