Dodgers Add Latest Pitching Project in Jimmy Nelson

It’s not a new insight to point out that the Dodgers decided a few years ago that one helpful thing they can do with all their money is take fliers on a ton of injured or otherwise unreliable starting pitchers, only some of whom will work out. Other teams do this too, of course, but only the Dodgers do it at a scale that leaves their starting pitchers’ depth chart looking quite this crowded year after year:

Jimmy Nelson, row seven, is the newest addition to the Dodgers’ crop of injured arms, as he reportedly signed with Los Angeles for $1.25 million in guaranteed dollars with a litany of incentives and option years (up to $13 million over two years, according to reports). That structure has the effect of capping Nelson’s earnings through the end of 2021 if he comes back healthy — starting pitchers have signed for a median of $8.25 million a year so far this offseason, which puts Nelson’s cap of $6.5 million well below average — while committing the Dodgers to very little guaranteed money in the event Nelson fails to bounce back.

That’s a comedown for Nelson, who put up a 4.8-WAR season as recently as 2017 (eighth among major-league starting pitchers that year) but didn’t pitch at all in 2018 and made only three (terrible) starts in 2019. The Brewers, who unlike the Dodgers don’t have spare millions to throw at just anybody, declined to tender Nelson a 2020 contract last month (he was expected to make around $3.7 million in arbitration), leading him to the waiting, well-moneyed hands of the Dodgers.

The deal will definitely pay off for Los Angeles because it’s structured so that it can’t not — Guggenheim Baseball Management probably pays more for paper supplies each year than they’ve committed in guaranteed dollars here — but that still leaves the somewhat more interesting question unanswered: will Nelson, the human being, be any good at playing baseball next year? Shoulder and elbow injuries are notoriously difficult to recover from, while simultaneously being excellent predictors of similar injuries in the future, so in terms of a first approximation, the prognosis here isn’t promising. That said, Nelson is tall (6-foot-6), relatively young (30), and motivated. Stranger things have happened than a bounce-back year with a new team.

The most likely path to success for Nelson runs through the bullpen. I have no doubt that the Dodgers — and presumably Nelson — would prefer that he comes into spring training and out-competes, say, Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin for that fifth spot in the Los Angeles rotation. But if that doesn’t work — and even if it does — it may be worth considering simplifying Nelson’s repertoire to just his fastball and his above-average slider and giving him a shot to pitch out the bullpen in long relief.

As Jack Trent Dorfman noted in his writeup over at Fansided, this scenario bears a number of similarities to the Dodgers’ signing of Brandon Morrow back in 2017. Like Nelson, Morrow had pitched only sporadically in the years prior to his arrival in Los Angeles (his years in the wilderness were in fact even longer, extending back to 2013) and like Nelson, Morrow featured little bullpen experience at the time and a standard four-pitch starter mix. In 2017 for the Dodgers, Morrow simplified to his fastball and his slider, added a cutter, and generated a 1.55 FIP in relief. Morrow is, I think, about the best-case scenario you could expect for Nelson and the Dodgers.

It’s been a difficult few years for Jimmy Nelson. A year ago, Jeff Sullivan wrote a post for this website which included the following sentence: “In a sense, the purpose behind this post is simply to remind you of the existence of Jimmy Nelson.” Only 18 months before that, the same Jeff Sullivan wrote a piece entitled “The Brewers Might Have Found an Actual Ace.” Nelson was very good for the Brewers in 2017, but then he got hurt and fell into obscurity. This deal with the Dodgers is the foothold he has chosen to labor his way back.

Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he works with communities around the world to end homelessness.

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4 years ago

The only quibble I’ll offer is that I have a hard time imagining that the Dodgers don’t want FV60 pitching prospect Dustin May to compete for a lot more than the 5th spot in their rotation; May’s pitched 130+ innings in every one of his professional seasons and has no significant injury history or rehab going on. I would suspect they would like to see him do more than poke around at the back of the rotation, as his upside is to slot in after Buehler and Kershaw (and his absolute upside might be to slot in in between them).

The Dodgers were 1 guy short of their traditional ‘2 MLB starting staffs available’ line, but I agree that Nelson is unlikely to actually be included in that complement unless he does significantly better than expected.

Steamer more or less expects May to produce the same rate as Kenta Maeda on a per-inning basis; for as much they want him to work out, I feel like Urias is the shakiest of the ‘expected starters’ in terms of output, both injury and performance-wise. (the projection systems seem to agree with me on that, having Urias as the weakest of the 5 of them in both).

Folks are so used to the Dodgers micro-managing the innings and exposure of young pitchers, but a lot of that was a necessity driven by surgery recovery or no history of throwing professional innings totals (Buehler:TJS, Stripling:TJS, Urias: no history, then shoulder capsule recovery). May’s got the IP totals over the last few years to simply be allowed to go out and throw the 160 innings per year that the Dodgers permit starting pitchers to throw in the regular season. (Buehler’s 2019 represents the upward bound of what a Dodger SP is permitted to do in the regular season now, I suspect).

Whomever is in charge of NLW Depth Charts should probably recognize that reality and stop penciling in Clayton Kershaw to throw 200 innings. Even if he’s perfectly healthy, they will never allow that to happen again.