Maybe you’re just like me. Maybe you grabbed Milwaukee Brewers right-hander Jimmy Nelson in your draft last spring, convinced that you were waiting in the weeds on a second-half nuclear weapon that would get healthy, step into a talent-laden clubhouse and propel you to a league title. A freakish mishap on the basepaths at Wrigley Field damaged Nelson’s right shoulder on Sept. 8, 2017, and that Friday night is the last time we’ve seen him in a game.
The operative phrase “back around June” took full hold in January 2018, and few fantasy owners gave any thought to the possibility that Nelson would not pitch at all in ’18.
As we all know, that unfortunate scenario played out. Nelson’s shoulder wasn’t cleared for throwing off a mound until it was too late to ramp up for game action. He couldn’t even take a minor league rehab assignment, a development that escaped heavy scrutiny due to Milwaukee’s charge to the NL Central title and Game 7 of the NLCS. While no one ever seemed to definitively utter the words “out for the season” when discussing Nelson, Brewers GM David Stearns faced the inevitable in mid-August and recognized an ’18 return was “unlikely.”
More recently, the Brewers said Nelson’s rehab is over but an updated plan is in place and caution is the story.
A recent tweet captures his work ethic and determination to be in top form this coming season. Nelson also expressed confidence in an interview with MLB Radio earlier this month.
What can we realistically expect in 2019? A return to the staff ace role? Rust? Regression? Conservative handling by the Brewers? There is uncertainty, both in Brewer Nation and in the fantasy baseball world, which his ADP of 260 in early mock drafts (NFBC ADP data) reflects. Nelson is slotted just behind fellow pitchers Steven Matz and Julio Teheran. It should be noted he was in the 270 range earlier this month, so there’s been a small uptick recently.
Because he was a late-bloomer—not fully emerging until his shortened ’17 season—Nelson is probably coming to a crossroads, with his 30th birthday approaching June 5. He is under club control through the 2020 season and was renewed in December at the same $3.7 million he drew in ’18. How good was Nelson in 2017? Because so much has happened for the Brewers since that season, you may have forgotten about his accomplishments. They’re worth remembering.
An Ace Emerged
Nelson’s “back of the baseball card” stats were 12-6 with a 3.49 ERA—easily a career best in ERA (excluding his brief stint in 2013), and a personal best in wins. The right-hander’s rise to power pitcher status turned heads as he posted a 10.21 K/9 rate with another career high in strikeouts (190). Several other metrics placed him among the best MLB starters in 2017 as an emerging rotation ace.
Unsurprisingly, an exact match for Nelson among those who have had similar pitching injuries doesn’t jump off the page. This is probably due to the severity of this base-running injury, which led to the surgical repair of his anterior labrum, rotator cuff, and capsule in September 2017. A somewhat dated piece of research focused on labrum tears concluded in 2010 that just under half of MLB pitchers in this category were unable to return to prior performance (RTPP). The study covered 2003-10 and included 24 MLB pitchers. Last offseason, Brad Ford at Brew Crew Ball put together a nice breakdown of familiar pitching names with some similarities to the Nelson file.
More recently, Newsday baseball writer Steven Marcus compared shoulder surgeries to the more well-known Tommy John procedure. There is discouraging data in that piece, but you also find positive developments, including the Orel Hershiser recovery in the early 1990s. In short, the jury is out until Nelson can get into the spring training routine and beyond.
If you play in a conventional fantasy league, where wins matter, Nelson is backed by a quality lineup and a projected shutdown late-inning combination of Josh Hader–Jeremy Jeffress–Corey Knebel. He has topped the 175-inning plateau three times, including 175.1 frames in 2017. Nelson probably won’t approach that number again in 2019 given the likelihood of a managed workload, especially early on.
It’s worth noting that Milwaukee will play nine road games in April where cold weather is possible, including the first three days of the month in Cincinnati. On the flip side, The Crew also figure to benefit from a six-game Southern California trip (April 8-14). In May, there is a trip to Wrigley Field (May 10-12) that could produce sunshine, damp cold, a 36-hour downpour, or all of the above! I don’t see the Brewers overexposing Nelson to cold Midwest road games in the early going.
Nelson carries a 2019 Steamer projection of 7-7/4.21 ERA/3.32 WHIP/19 Starts/112 IP. That puts him at under six innings per start, making it harder to be the pitcher of record and win close games. As noted above, the deep, talented Brewers bullpen that could also include Corbin Burnes (if he doesn’t start), will be on hand to help him save bullets for the stretch drive.
The 2010 second-round pick out of Alabama has been named in more than one place this winter as an X-factor who could push the NL Central in Milwaukee’s favor. If that’s the case, Nelson’s projected ERA and WHIP listed above will probably need to be lower.
(Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire)