In 2017, Brewer fans thought they had found the ever-elusive homegrown ace in Jimmy Nelson. While his record for that year was just 12-6 with an ERA of 3.49, other pitching stats – those that tell us more about what a pitcher really is (10.21 K%, 50.3 ground ball rate, 3.05 FIP, 4.8 fWAR) – were saying that Mr. Nelson was on the precipice of becoming the bonafide, genuine article. A true ace that was not bought or traded for, but one that grew up in the Brewers system.
Better yet, he was leading the Brew Crew towards the playoffs. But tragedy struck. Against the nemesis Cubs, Jimmy Nelson turned first base a bit too aggressively, and he dove back to the first base bag in time to avoid being thrown out. Everyone of us wish that he would have gone back in standing and been called out. Instead, a man by all accounts who is a great competitor reacted has a great competitor would. That slide back to first ended the rest of his season, the rest of 2018, and it seems some amount of time in 2019.
When David Stearns says on MLB Network Radio that Jimmy Nelson might not go through camp at the same pace as everyone else but that they are “optimistic that (he) will impact the team this season, ” it makes me more nervous than I probably should be.
— The Brewer Nation (@BrewerNation) January 16, 2019
We’ve heard optimism out of the Brewers’ coaching staff and front office before. That optimism turned into a bitter reality of a lost season in 2018. After missing all of last year, optimism revolved around the completion of rehab and being ready for a normal offseason coming into spring training. David Stearns’ comments about easing Jimmy Nelson back at a different pace than everyone else portends something other than normal. These comments by the Brewers’ GM will likely cause tremendous angst among Brewers’ fans even with the articulated optimism about impacting the team this season, because we’ve heard such optimism before. The question really is, how concerned should we be?
Word on the convention floor is that Brewers pitching coach Derek Johnson told fans the team expects Jimmy Nelson back around June.
— Adam McCalvy (@AdamMcCalvy) January 28, 2018
#Brewers Jimmy Nelson feels good about progress after year of rehabbing shoulder surgery: “It’s a nice box to check off to be cleared as healthy and not be a ‘rehabber,’ basically. I know what I have to do and how to do it. I’m looking forward to how I come into next season.”
— Tom (@Haudricourt) October 7, 2018
If your expectation was that Nelson would come back to his 2017 form with limited rust and risk, then you should be very concerned. His injury was serious and rare for a person that pitches baseballs for a living. Brad Ford’s article prior to last season lays out the severity and likelihood of previous performance associated with such an injury extremely well. Maybe Nelson comes back like Curt Schilling or Chris Carpenter did. He could also suffer a similar fate like Mark Prior or Brandon Webb. So uncertainty is the name of the game right now.
Stearns and the front office are fully aware of this, and they will want to handle Nelson cautiously. What we might expect is judicious use of the big right-hander in spring training. With one more option remaining, the Brewers could send Nelson to San Antonio to work off any rust and to get back to some semblance of the Jimmy Nelson we HOPE to see, if the Brewers and Nelson are lucky. Whether he spends time in San Antonio or not, Craig Counsell might ease Nelson back in the bullpen. That might create another multi-inning reliever for Counsell to utilize.
What might be the case is something more ominous. Nelson may struggle a great deal, and he might never be effective. That is a possible outcome, folks. He also might only be serviceable or a back-of-the-rotation arm. That potential outcome would be disappointing. The fact is Nelson may struggle to come back period. He also may just need to get some innings in to build up strength and confidence as well as work off the rust.
No matter the case, it is probably not wise to send Nelson out against MLB hitters to start the season (Brewers schedule in March and April is tough). Nelson is a competitor and likely mentally strong, but a couple bad initial outings could sabotage his progress and confidence. Unfortunately the Milwaukee press and fan base probably would not help the situation either if he failed to start off well. Questions would emerge about the end of Nelson’s career. Why put him through that until we have more certainty. Once Stearns has a better idea of where Nelson is, he will frame expectations in the best way possible for the Brewers organization. And that is probably what’s best for Milwaukee’s home-grown ace to have any chance to returning to form.