The Milwaukee Brewers promoted pitching prospect Jimmy Nelson to the major leagues today and he's expected to start tomorrow. Nelson has been blowing away Triple-A all year and is ready for an extended big league trial, making him a logical topic for today's Prospect of the Day.
Nelson's development as a prospect was not a straight path to success. Pitching for the University of Alabama, he struggled with command issues as a freshman (6.26 ERA, 37/29 K/BB in 42 innings), but improved as a sophomore (4.54 ERA, 39/20 K/BB in 38 innings) used mainly as a reliever both seasons. He moved to the rotation for his junior year in 2010 and improved significantly, posting a 4.01 ERA with a 98/33 K/BB in 110 innings. There was some question on his long-term role, but his stuff was strong and he was drafted in the second round.
Assigned to Low-A Wisconsin in the Midwest League for 2011, Nelson posted a somewhat disappointing 4.38 ERA due to command troubles, though he pitched 146 innings with a 120/65 K/BB. Moved up to High-A Brevard County in the Florida State League for 2012, he showed better control, posting a 77/25 K/BB in 81 innings with a 2.21 ERA. Promoted to Double-A Huntsville in July, he had some adaptation issues with his command but held his own overall, posting a 3.91 ERA with a 42/37 K/BB in 46 innings.
Nelson returned to Huntsville for 2013 and improved a great deal, with a 72/15 K/BB in 69 innings. This got him an invite to the MLB All Star Futures Game, as well as a promotion to Triple-A Nashville. He ran up a 3.67 ERA in 83 innings for the Sounds, with a 91/50 K/BB and 74 hits allowed. He pitched 10 innings in the majors last fall and gave up just one run.
He returned to Nashville for more "seasoning" this spring and has been lights out: 114/32 K/BB in 111 innings, just 70 hits, a 1.46 ERA. His FIP is more human at 2.94, but that's still really good, especially by the standards of the Pacific Coast League.
Born June 5, 1989, Nelson is a big guy at 6-5, 245. He had problems keeping his mechanics in gear early in his career, but has made a lot of progress making his delivery more consistent, enhancing his command and control. He has needed time to make adjustments at each level: the general pattern is a spike in his walk rate when he is promoted, but it comes back down again as he gets used to the competition.
His stuff is certainly good enough: he can hit 94-96 with his four-seam fastball, 90-93 with nasty sinking action when he goes with two seams. Even when his command is off, he keeps the ball down and gives up very few home runs; walks are his weakness, not gopher balls. He's given up just three homers this year. His slider is very good, and he's improved his change-up from quite weak to at least workable and sometimes better than average.
If his past pattern is any indication, Nelson could have some adjustment and command issues in the majors but will work through them and emerge as an effective pitcher. Once he settles in, I see him as a workhorse inning-eater who will provide above-average numbers year after year. He has nothing left to prove in the minors at all, and the Brewers just need to let him pitch.