Most of the talk about needed Brewers roster improvement has centered around the offense, and rightly so. While the bullpen has been outstanding and the rotation has been extremely solid, the offense has hovered around league average all year in terms of scoring runs. The Brewers definitely could use an upgrade or two to the offense, especially in the form of a left-handed power hitter. If only they had one in camp this year… but I digress.
Anyway, as much as the pitching hasn’t really been a concern, teams should always be looking at ways to upgrade any area of a club should the opportunity present itself. It was in that spirit that I floated this idea on twitter on Sunday:
There may come a point this season where I would be ok with moving Marco Estrada to the pen and calling up Jimmy Nelson to start. #Brewers
— RD Topp (@RDTopp) May 18, 2014
It being Twitter, this, of course, spurred some debate. It was pointed out that Matt Garza has actually been worse than Marco Estrada this year, which is somewhat true looking just at ERA and leaving out their respective FIP’s and xFIPs. There is also the matter of Garza’s contract, which frankly makes removing him from the rotation for anything other than an injury or massive collapse in performance a non-starter.
If the Brewers were to make a move like this, it really wouldn’t be about the guy being replaced so much as it would be about simply needing to open up a spot for Jimmy Nelson, who has been outstanding in AAA Nashville this year. In 58 innings, he has a 1.71 ERA. He’s allowing under 1 baserunner per inning, generating significantly more ground outs than fly outs and striking out almost 3.5 batters for every one he’s walked. It’s hard to imagine a better start to the season for the Brewers top prospect.
As if on cue, Baseball America’s JJ Cooper chose to write about Nelson on Monday for their ongoing “What To Expect” series, including an updated scouting report. He’s quite bullish on Nelson’s chances to contribute his year and really has nothing but glowing praise for him. Some analysts, like ESPN’s Keith Law, have pegged Nelson as a late inning power reliever in the past because of his lack of stuff to get big league lefties out. Cooper addressed that:
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.
It’s sometimes dangerous to assume that changes that are witnessed over 50-some odd innings are permanent, even with developing prospects on a fairly steep learning curve. If this is a real step forward for Nelson, though, not just something fleeting, it should go a very long way towards making him the kind of mid-rotation starter that Cooper see’s him being.
Cooper also addressed a concern that was very rightly brought up to me on twitter Sunday when I broached this topic, namely that Nelson has often struggled right after a promotion:
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.
Let’s face it, the Brewers are probably going to wait until someone either gets hurt or falls flat on their face for an extended period performance-wise to call up Nelson. Teams need pitching depth, and I’m sure the team wouldn’t mind giving him more time to refine his command to the inner half and maybe throw a few more change ups per outing. That’s probably the right call, and the way big league pitchers get hurt these days, he’ll probably get his shot soon enough anyway.
There is a school of thought, though, that says that hurlers only have so many throws in them, and that it’s silly to waste them in the minor leagues once a guy is ready. It’s especially bad to waste them when they could be doing a contending big league club some good. Whether or not this applies to Nelson specifically is certainly open to debate. We’ve seen so little of him at the big league level and we don’t yet have enough statistical data to say with confidence that his improvements are real and permanent.
The Brewers would also probably be foolish to call him up to pitch out of the pen at this point just to get him to the big leagues, given that he’s the next obvious guy in line to start (sorry Mike Fiers) should someone go down. Maybe later in the season it would make sense to use him as a power arm out of the pen, but not now. So we’re probably just going to have to wait to see Nelson pitch in the big leagues for the time being. If Cooper is right about his final assessment (seriously, just go read the whole thing already), it will be well worth the wait.