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Brewers Tender or Non-Tender Decisions: Jimmy Nelson

Nelson’s comeback bid did not go the way anyone would have hoped, leading to questions about his future with the Brewers

Washington Nationals V Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

2019 salary: $3,700,000
2020 projection: $3,700,000
Difference: $0

Jimmy Nelson deserves all the credit in the world for working his way back to the major leagues after the severe shoulder injury that easily could have ended his career just as it was starting to take off.

After more than a year’s worth of rehab and recovery, Nelson made his re-debut in the majors on June 5th. Unfortunately, the comeback wasn’t exactly out of a storybook. He struggled to work deep into games and with his control as a starter during his first three outings, lasting a total of only 12 innings in those starts, allowing 13 earned runs while walking 10 and striking out 13.

Nelson reporedly rejected an assignment to the minors to figure things out after that and was moved to the bullpen instead, but after another rocky outing that saw him walk four batters in two innings of relief, he landed on the Injured List with fluid in his pitching elbow.

He wouldn’t return to the majors until September call-ups and had a generally encouraging month, at least considering where he was in June, allowing 4 earned runs in 8 innings across 6 relief outings. Those runs came in back-to-back poor outings against the Cubs and Cardinals, but he closed the year with 4 scoreless innings, including striking out 4 batters over 2 shutout innings against the Rockies in the final regular season game of the year.

In his last winter as an arbitration-eligible player, it now appears Nelson’s career is truly at a crossroads. If he’s brought back to the Brewers, his role is a bit of an unknown. Another attempt at putting him in the rotation would be a gamble, to say the least, after he seemed to struggle with his mechanics in 2019. If he has a spot on the 2020 Brewers, it may be in a similar role another former starter -- Junior Guerra -- held in 2019.

At this point, it looks like the unusual shoulder injury has at least robbed us of the ability to tell whether his 2017 breakout was for real, or was a bit of a mirage (like Chase Anderson’s 2017 proved to be). It’s easy to forget that even before the injury, Nelson struggled with control for much of his career, looking much more like a 4th or 5th starter than a budding ace. Without the increased velocity and sharp control that led to that career year, Nelson looked much more like the below-average pitcher he was from 2014 to 2016, when he had a cumulative ERA of 4.46 with an ERA+ of 91.

His future as a big leaguer -- not even just with the Brewers -- might depend on rediscovering that uptick in velocity. There’s always the hope a full-time move to the bullpen and another year removed from the injury helps in that effort, but counting on a positive contribution from Nelson in 2020 would be a big risk.

While the Brewers could bring Nelson back and only be on the hook for a portion of that salary through Spring Training (and cut him loose if he doesn’t show anything in camp), the way David Stearns has been looking for room at the edges of his budget so far this offseason would seem to indicate a very real possibility the potential future ace gets non-tendered on Monday.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference