Jimmy Nelson is going to make his second start of the season on Friday. You’re forgiven if you missed the first one—though it was good (5.2 IP, 5 H, 3 BB, 6 K, 0 ER)—and you’re forgiven if you don’t remember our Call-Up article on him, because it took place during the call-up heavy month of September, last season. Nelson replaces Marco Estrada in the Brewers rotation at a time when the Brewers desperately need to maintain their 1 ½-game lead in the NL Central, lest they fall back into a crowded wild card race. Replacing Estrada with Nelson at this crucial time shows one of two things: The Brewer’s complete lack of faith in Estrada ironing out his home run issues (which are bad, even for him), or their belief in the abilities of Nelson, not necessarily to live up to his potential, but to be better than Estrada will be for the remainder of the season.
Speaking of that potential, here’s what erstwhile BP-er Jason Cole had to say last September about Nelson:
“…the safer bet is probably late-inning relief over no. 3 or 4 starter. Regardless of the right-hander’s role, he’s a big-league-caliber power arm and should make an impact in Milwaukee next season”
Fortunately for the Brewers, the Nelson that will take the mound on Saturday is a bit different than the one described above. While he still brings his mid-90s fastball with movement, Nelson has refined his ability to command the pitch, and has pushed his slider from solid-average to consistently above-average. Those two things, combined with touching 98 MPH on more than occasion have raised Nelson’s profile from potential fourth starter to potential high-three. His changeup continues to lag behind his fastball/slider combination (fringe-average pitch at present) but if that can be a consistently average pitch, we’re looking at someone who could pitch toward the top of most big league rotations. With an arsenal that could mature enough to allow Nelson to throw consistent, high quality innings, Nelson’s 6-foot-5, 245-pound frame gives him the ability to log a significant number of them.
It’s important to note that while his ceiling has been pushed higher, his odds of reaching that aren’t necessarily all that high. He’s shown the ability to learn, adapt, and refine, all qualities that should make us comfortable projecting him to continue his progression. At the same time, his likely outcome has moved from relief pitcher to mid-rotation starter, and that’s a lot of movement in and of itself. It will require more learning, adapting, and refining to reach his new ceiling, and those adjustments are going to have to come at the major league level, against the best talent he’s faced so far. While he’s shown the plus-plus fastball and the plus-plus slider and flashed and average change, the reality is that he won’t be able to bring all three of those to the mound each night at any point in his career, much less in the short term.
What he can do in the short term, though, is help in wins, strikeouts, and ERA. He is still a bit wild, so the WHIP could be a detriment, which could lead to shorter outings than we’d prefer, but it’s a solid overall package, and an improvement on what Marco Estrada was bringing to the table. It’s likely better than what the back end of your fantasy rotation is bringing to the table too. He’s a must-add in 14-team leagues and deeper and could be a nice streaming option in shallower leagues.