Jimmy Nelson has not been good this spring. At all.
In 13 innings in major league camp, Nelson has given up 17 hits while allowing 12 runs, nine of which were earned. That's enough for a 6.23 ERA. There is some good news, however, as he has struck out nine batters and walked just one. This morning, Nelson pitched in a Triple-A game to get some more work and, well...
Pitching line for #Brewers No. 5 starter Jimmy Nelson in AAA game this morning: 4.1 IP, 11 H, 10 R, 10 ER, 4 BB, 6 K. 86 pitches.— Tom (@Haudricourt) March 30, 2015
The Brewers have shown a lot of faith in Nelson thus far, including trading away long-time starter Yovani Gallardo in part to open up a spot in the rotation for the 25-year-old former top prospect. They've also been quick to support him this spring despite his lackluster performance. Of course, that support came before today's efforts in the minor league game.
Nelson isn't going anywhere, though -- there's next to no chance he starts the season anywhere but in the Brewers' starting rotation. Even with him struggling right now, the Brewers have no other options. Such was the criticism many had with the team trading Gallardo: The starting depth is not there in the case of Nelson (or Mike Fiers) failing or in the case of injury. With Taylor Jungmann as the sixth starter and Tyler Thornburg and Michael Blazek lining up behind him, there's no assurance in a decent, veteran arm behind Nelson.
Even in a tryout last year, Nelson had poor numbers. He made 12 starts and two relief appearances for Milwaukee with a 4.93 ERA and 1.48 WHIP. Again, though, his K:BB numbers were not bad with a 7.4 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9. Nelson also has a tendency to struggle when first advancing a level, then pitching very well in the following year.
Nelson's total workload this spring, including Monday's minor league contest, is also the equivalent of, what, three starts? A little over 18 innings is basically nothing, and spring training is hard to draw big, overarching conclusions from. Guys struggle in spring training all the time -- established, star players will hit for a sub-.500 OPS or give up a ton of runs.
At the same time, though, it's hard not to look at Nelson's stats thus far and see that, despite decent K/BB numbers, he's been getting hit hard. If the Brewers had a guy behind him that could be somewhat relied on to pitch quality innings if Nelson doesn't work out, then it would be less worrisome. Because there would be a back-up plan in place. Instead, the Brewers are flying by the seat of their pants in a season where they need nearly everything to go right.
Still, it's important to note that Nelson -- who can pitch in the mid-90s on his fastball -- has had control be his biggest issue over his career. Until Monday, he had walked just one batter this spring and did a nice job last year keeping walks to a minimum. It's possible Nelson has been too focused on that and has left some meatballs around the plate, resulting in a high number of hits. If he can continue working on control while not over-focusing on it, it could help him have better outings.
Probably Nelson will be just fine. I don't think anyone expects him to suddenly turn in an ace, but he's positioned as a fifth starter. He's not supposed to replicate Gallardo's stats. Fifth starter production tends to not be that great. It's hard to imagine Nelson being worse than that, though ideally he would be much better -- better teams naturally have better fifth starter production typically. Nelson has been a top-50 prospect in the majors, though, so there's something there to hinge your hopes on. Prospects bust all the time, but the talent is there for him to succeed.
Nelson has struggled this spring. But the Brewers have put a lot of faith in him, and they wouldn't have done that if they didn't believe he would rise up to meet their standards. Despite his struggles this spring, we'll have to hope the Brewers were right in this case.