Name: Chris Nelson
Position: Third Base/Second Base/Shortstop
Bats: Right Throws: Right
Age as of Opening Day 2013: 27 (born 9/3/1985)
Height: 5'11" Weight: 205 lbs.
Remaining Contract: One year, $491,000, last year of pre-arbitration
2012 Statistics: (MLB) 162 games, .301/.352/.458, 21 2B, 3 3B, 9 HR, 2 SB, 1 CS, .348 wOBA, 105 wRC+
Alex Rodriguez's hip surgery begat the signing of Kevin Youkilis last December. Kevin Youkilis's back injury begat the terrifying world of everyday third baseman Jayson Nix. The terrifying world of everyday third baseman Jayson Nix begat the trade for Chris Nelson, and that's where we are today.
It's depressing to look back on how injuries have ravaged the Yankees, but GM Brian Cashman and company have to make do with what's available to them. One lineup the Yankees featured last week featured players and a starting pitcher whose combined salary was $35 million, a pittance by Yankee standards.That same day, the Yankees sent cash to the Rockies for the recently-DFA'd Nelson. The lineup against lefties is a disaster, especially in NL parks, where they can only deploy DH Travis Hafner as a pinch-hitter. Thus, they felt it was worth a shot to try Nelson, who had decent numbers last year, his third in the big leagues.
Back in the days of Enrique Wilson and Howard Dean SNL sketches, Nelson was the ninth overall draft pick by Rockies. He was a high school shortstop, and he played there for the vast majority of his minor league career. However, the Rockies drafted some other punk shortstop out of the college with the seventh overall pick in the following year's draft, so when that kid crashed the majors the next season and finished runner-up in NL Rookie of the Year voting as the Rockies rolled to their first pennant, the path to the majors became much more difficult for Nelson. The shortstop donning #2 became one of baseball's best players, and the Rockies signed him to an extension that would pay him $160 million through 2020.
Nelson's only recourse was to force his way into the majors through the power of his bat, since his glove was not going to get him there anyway. Nelson recovered from surgery on his right wrist in '09 to hit .317/.379/.498 with a .384 wOBA and 125 wRC+ in his first season at Triple-A in 2010, earning him his first cup of coffee in the big leagues in June and September. By then, he was trying his hand at other infield positions, like second base and third base. He returned to Triple-A for more work in '11, and he posted nearly identical numbers to the season before: .325/.363/.543 with a .390 wOBA and a 120 wRC+. He saw a little more time in the pros, but was unimpressive (65 wRC+ in 189 PA). Nonetheless, his gaudy numbers at Colorado Springs were difficult to ignore.
An opening in the Colorado infield emerged in Spring Training 2012 when '11 third baseman Ty Wigginton signed with the Phillies. Nelson won the job, and he had his best year to date. He thrived at Coors Field, where he hit .347/.411/.500 with a .390 wOBA and 121 wRC+ compared to .257/.292/.417 with a .305 wOBA and 89 wRC+ on the road. His numbers were virtually identical against lefties and righties, and he even demonstrated the capacity to make great plays at third base like this sliding catch on a bunt and this diving play at third.
Unfortunately, those defensive gems were by far the exception rather than the rule. Although he reportedly has a strong arm, Nelson's a butcher at third base, totaling -2.6 dWAR in his career per Baseball-Reference, -17.6 UZR at third base per FanGraphs, and -11.0 FRAA per Baseball Prospectus. Hell, even ol' fielding percentage knows he's crap--all third basemen in baseball last year combined for a .952 fielding percentage; Nelson was at .931. It's not easy for Nelson to play third base after all those years at shortstop; not everyone can be Manny Machado. If the Yankees play Nelson at third, they sacrifice the decent defense that Jayson Nix provides. Not that he would be playing much there, but Nelson rates even worse as a second baseman. Despite only appearing in 24 innings as a shortstop in the pros, it actually might be better for the Yankees to try Nelson there if Eduardo Nunez has to miss time simply because Nelson can't be any worse there than he is at third base.
It's up to Nelson's bat to prove he is worth keeping on the Yankees' roster. Last year, his road splits turned him into 2012 Nix at the plate (89 wRC+). Even dismissing the boost his home stats received from the elevated heights of Coors Field, he also rode an unsustainable .418 BABIP to success. His walk rate did advance from 3.7% in the pros in 2010-11 to 7.2% in 2012, but that is still nothing worth bragging about. In Triple-A from 2010-11, he struck out in 15% of plate appearances, a figure that jumped to 18.5% last year. Nelson was off to a slow start this year with the Rockies at .242/.282/.318 with a 49 wRC+ before they cut him to make room for top prospect Nolan Arenado.
This may be a very pessimistic look at Nelson, but there's simply not much there to inspire much confidence other than "he might hit better than Nix." The minor improvements at the plate over Nix probably won't compensate for his atrocious defense at third base anyway. There's a decent chance he'll be useful in the three-game series beginning tonight at Coors Field since he hit so well there last year, but after that, the outlook is bleak. The bottom line is that the Yankees needed someone to back up Nix at third base while Youkilis is out, and it might be lucky that they acquired Nelson for depth since Nunez got hurt a couple days later (even though his injury probably won't last for long). There really were no other options at third since Corban Joseph would also be a misplaced infielder at third and a lefty unable to help their LHP lineup. David Adams cannot be recalled until May 15th, and Ronnier Mustelier only returned to action from his Spring Training injury on May 2nd. For better or for worse, the Yankees are stuck with Nelson as their backup third baseman.
Hurry back, Youk.