The Brewers originally had nine players eligible for arbitration this winter, up from eight a year ago, but the Brewers already took care of a couple of those cases by signing Chase Anderson to a multi-year contract and outrighting Carlos Torres off the roster.
As we get closer to the deadline, we'll take a look at the cases for each of the seven remaining players to see whether the Brewers should go forward in the arbitration process with them, or cut them loose now. Today it's the pitcher who emerged as the staff ace before going down with a serious shoulder injury on the basepaths.
SP Jimmy Nelson
2017 Salary: $547k
2018 Projection (via MLB Trade Rumors): $4.7 million
Difference: +$4.153 million
Nelson is projected to see the biggest pay increase this winter among the Brewers' arbitration-eligibles, and it shouldn't come as much of a surprise considering how he was pitching before that fateful night in Chicago.
When he awkwardly jammed his shoulder sliding back to first base (and tearing his labrum in the process), Nelson had his ERA down to 3.49 with a 3.05 FIP. He was one strikeout shy of becoming just the 6th pitcher in team history with 200 strikeouts in a season, and was sporting the second-highest K/9 rate in team history -- his 10.215 mark was higher than 2004 Ben Sheets and trailing only 2011 Zack Greinke. In short, he was on his way to one of the best pitching seasons by a Brewer ever, and was keeping the team in the Wild Card hunt while the offense ground to a halt. Despite missing most of the last month, Nelson still was a Top-10 finisher in this year's NL Cy Young voting.
The Case for Tendering
Labrum injuries can be career-altering, but there's some hope the way that Nelson tore his -- a freak accident, instead of the shoulder breaking down from wear and tear -- could mean he could eventually work his way back to the level he was able to get to in 2017. It may not happen in 2018, but there's no reason for the team to punt on the rest of his future.
You could be concerned that 2017 was a one-year wonder for Nelson, but there's plenty of proof that the results were real. For one, as his FIP shows, his ERA actually should've been about a half of a run better, and he was the victim of some bad luck on balls that were put into play -- his BABIP of .340 was more than 30 points higher than his career average.
There's also a good reason his strikeout rates jumped and his home run rates dropped -- he added a spike curveball that became a major out pitch, and also tinkered with a split-changeup. Basically, it's hard to compare his 2017 season to the ones that came before it because he was working with a much different repertoire -- and one that made him a borderline star. Shoulder injury or not, he's still going to have those pitches in his arsenal when he comes back.
The Case for Non-Tendering
There's next to no chance the Brewers non-tender Nelson, but the point of this exercise is to try to play devil's advocate and conjure up a few reasons. So, hypothetically speaking, if there's a setback in Nelson's recovery and there's some doubt that Nelson could ever get back to where he was, maybe there becomes a shred of possibility.
There's also the chance what we saw from Nelson this year was a once-in-a-career season that would never be replicated, even before the injury. Before 2017, Nelson looked very much like a fringe major league starter that would struggle to stay in a contending team's rotation. His fantastic 2017 came off the heels of his worst season as a professional. In 2016, he walking a league-leading 86 batters in 179.1 innings, while also leading the league in hit batters. His 4.62 ERA was lucky to be that low, considering all of the baserunners, and his FIP was a dreadful 5.12. On top of that, his strikeout rates dropped to career lows.
He was headed into Wily Peralta Failed Pitching Prospect territory before turning things around this past year. Again, playing devil's advocate, what happens if he loses whatever he found in 2017 and reverts back to the Old Jimmy Nelson?
What Should Happen?
Don't be dumb. He's going to be tendered. Even if 2018 ends up being a lost season in some ways -- whether he comes back later than expected or needs a year to shake off rust -- Nelson still has two years of arbitration past this winter. If this question ever becomes a legitimate issue for him, it'll probably be heading into that last year of team control, as he'll likely get a pass for anything that happens in 2018 heading into next winter.
This Brewers front office hates putting a timeline on anything, so the only thing we know is that Nelson will miss a "chunk" of the 2018 season. Whether that's a couple months, the first half, or two-thirds of the year remains to be seen, but the Brewers would be insane to give up on the glimpse we saw this year, and if they did, some other team would snatch him up on a multi-year deal fairly quickly.
In fact, maybe that's a route the Brewers could take with Nelson this winter. Rather than paying him nearly $5 million in arbitration for a mostly-lost year, they could offer him a two-year deal that pays him a little less than that in 2018 -- say, $3 million -- in exchange for a bump in the 2019 salary (let's call it $7 million to make it a 2-year, $10 million deal to buy out two years of arbitration, leaving one to go after that). It would be a risk in that Nelson could end up being really bad after the injury, but if he did get back to his 2017 ace level, $7 million in 2019 could be a huge bargain. Nelson would also gain some financial security with $10 million in the bank regardless of how his recovery goes, but would still be betting on himself for that last year of arbitration. It's an arrangement that could work for both sides.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs