Nelson ready to compete for starting role
In the spring of 2011, Jimmy Nelson found himself with a group Milwaukee Brewers pitching prospects in a semi-circle with a member of the coaching staff.
It was his first spring training with the organization that selected him in the second round (No. 64 overall) of the 2010 Major League Baseball amateur draft out of the University of Alabama.
Nelson, then 22 years old, had made 12 appearances for the Helena affiliate in rookie ball after the draft and was likely going to start his first full professional season in low Class A. But, he was there, along with prospects from Class AA and Class AAA.
The group was asked a simple question.
Where do you think you should be playing next year?
Nelson smiled at the memory.
"You're not trying to say something crazy," the big right-hander said. "Then the last guy, I'm not going to say his name, said 'Milwaukee'. And everybody was kind of like what? Then, the pitching coach just lit up. He said exactly. You have to have that mindset.
"Sure enough that one individual, that year, got to Milwaukee and made a huge impact on this team. That just showed you his thought process from spring training, even though he hadn't been here yet was he felt he should be here. Then he ended up having an outstanding year here in the big leagues."
It's a scene Nelson held on to as he moved up through the organization, culminating with his debut with the Brewers on Sept. 6 in Chicago, a perfect, two-inning relief appearance.
"That's a good example and I still remember that to this day," he said. "You just have to think like that."
Nelson pitched 10 innings for the Brewers across four appearances, allowing one earned run for a nifty 0.90 earned run average. He also had a solid minor league season split between Class AA Huntsville and Class AAA Nashville (27 starts, 10-10 record, 3.25 ERA, 152 1/3 innings, 9.6 K/9).
"As a younger guy it's something you've always wanted to do since you were four or five years old, to be in the big leagues," he said. "There's always a next level, a next level, a next level and now once you get here there's not a next level, so you've got to keep polishing your game here. That's a little weird that there's nothing above you. That's kind of cool."
The 6-foot, 5-inch, 245-pounder is training in Texas, keeping a routine he developed after an uneven first professional offseason which he admits he didn't quite prepare the way he should've.
"My first offseason I was a little immature and didn't really focus and kind of got the things out of my system that I needed to get out of my system, and the last two offseasons I've really gotten after it good," he said.
It could be seen on the field, too. In 2011 at Class A Wisconsin, he went 8-9 with a 4.38 ERA. Since then he's been stellar, moving up from high A Brevard County to the big leagues.
He's come to embrace working in the winter, which includes long toss, short, bullpens, video work, running, yoga and swimming.
"That's one of the things about baseball I really enjoy a lot, is the whole offseason training," he said. "That really interests me and it's something I'm really dedicated to."
The one aspect of his game that the Brewers hope Nelson can get under control is his command. In the minors, he has a career 4.1 walks per nine innings rate. While runners didn't score in his first four major league outings, he still walked five in his 10 innings (a 4.5 BB/9 rate).
But, conversely, the Brewers liked the way he went right at hitters.
"He's an aggressive guy and that makes a difference," manager Ron Roenicke said. "Maybe he'll be wild, I don't know, but he's going to come at you and he's going to give you his best stuff. Those are the kind of guys you want to see."
Nelson was working on having a consistent changeup to go with his fastball and plus slider when he came up to Milwaukee, but he admitted it was difficult to focus on that development once he was thrust into big league games.
"When you go out there and pitch here at this level you're trying to win games and get outs," he said. "That's your first priority, is winning. You're not necessarily working on stuff here as much as you are in the minor leagues. That's what that's for, to polish that stuff over, work on the things you have to work on in the minor leagues to get to this level, and by the time you get to this level those thing are supposed to be in place."
While Nelson may not be a completely finished product, he may be close enough to warrant serious consideration for a spot in the 2014 starting rotation.
Regardless of what the Brewers' brain trust might think, that's Nelson's mindset. After all, he saw it happen first hand out of the spring of 2011.
"For sure," he said. "You have to. If you don't have that thought process, if you don't feel like you belong in the big leagues, then your goals are set too low. In baseball there are a lot of goals you set, small ones and big ones and this is being one of the big ones. Staying here is another one. You work towards that and you have to have that mentality."
He's got to work on throwing more strikes. Maybe he'll get a chance in 2015 with another year of AAA under his belt and a really good spring training. As for 2014, there's just too much compitition for 1 open spot on the rotation this year. Gallerdo, Lohse, Peralta, & Estrada are pretty much locks. I'm betting Melvin adds a veteran arm at the end of that rotation (hopefully by trading Weeks).
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