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Yankees 2020 Season Preview: Nick Nelson

The righty has a big fastball and a solid curve, but can he overcome his spotty control and help the big club in 2020?

MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Pittsburgh Pirates John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Nelson is one of the Yankees’ multiple power arms in the minor leagues. The righty could pitch his way to the big leagues this season if he make some gains in the control department, but the depth chart is filled with talent and he will have to impress at Triple-A first.

On the 20-80 grading scale, MLB Pipeline has Nelson with very good stuff: he has a 60 fastball, a 55 curveball, a 50 slider and a 50 changeup. That can be read as a plus heater, an above-average hook and a pair of average offerings.

2019 stats:

Class A-Advanced: 3.2 IP, 0.00 ERA, 0.31 FIP, 17.18 K/9, 2.45 BB/9, 1.36 WHIP
Double-A: 65.0 IP, 2.35 ERA, 3.26 FIP, 11.49 K/9, 4.85 BB/9, 1.28 WHIP
Triple-A: 21.0 IP, 4.71 ERA, 3.58 FIP, 10.29 K/9, 3.00 BB/9, 1.29 WHIP

2020 FanGraphs ZiPS Projections (MLB): 92.7 IP, 5.24 ERA, 5.19 FIP, 9.52 K/9, 6.31 BB/9, 1.65 WHIP

The four-seamer usually sits in the 92-96 mph range, but if he needs to, Nelson can take it up to 98 mph. It is his best and most consistent pitch, and he shifted his approach a little last season to work more in the upper part of the zone.

The curveball is very good but he could enter phases in which he can’t consistently control it. The changeup and the slider are also good but he needs to gain consistency with them in order to succeed at the bigs.

Nelson is, according to MLB Pipeline, strong and athletic. The only thing holding him back right now is his below-average control. Working mostly as a starter at three levels in 2019, Nelson handed out 43 free passes in 89.2 frames, spread in 18 games (17 starts). Other than that, his season was very good from a developmental standpoint. He held hitters to a .220 average and had a 2.81 ERA, with 114 strikeouts.

He missed the start of the 2019 season with shoulder issues, but managed to climb all the way to Triple-A. There, he had a 4.71 ERA in four starts, but issued only seven bases on balls in 21 frames. He struck out 24.

During the abbreviated 2020 spring training, Nelson was unscored upon three games and five innings. He allowed only two hits but walked four batters, striking out three of them. He recently told Scott Rossman of WJHG:

”I thought spring training went pretty well for me. I faced some big league guys and that was pretty cool. It has definitely been pretty cool being on the big league side around a lot of the guys and getting to know them a little bit and talking some baseball with them and what not.”

For now, the Yankees plan on keep developing him as a starter, but he needs to work in his control and command, which will come in time if he learns to consistently repeat his delivery. The team knows that, in the worst of cases, he can be an impact reliever with the heat and the curveball.

If he makes it as a starter, though, he could be a very valuable piece for the organization. However, consider the fact that there are several arms who are higher than him in the depth chart: Gerrit Cole, Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, J.A. Happ, Jordan Montgomery, Jonathan Loaisiga, Mike King and Deivi Garcia are all ahead, and Domingo German will also be, after he misses the first 63 games of the 2020 season with a suspension.

With the halt in play, chances are that the Yankees will have every rotation piece but Luis Severino—Tommy John surgery—and German available for the start of the season, but that doesn’t mean that Nelson won’t be needed later down the road. He could make an impact in 2020 as a reliever.

The organization is counting on Nelson for the future. The Yankees made him a member of the 40-man roster in November to protect him from being taken in the Rule 5 draft. For now, he was optioned to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and would start the season there.

He needs to take another step forward, though, especially in the control department. If he can keep flirting with the mid-90s, cut his walks and develop at least one between the slider and the changeup, he could find himself in the rotation within the next couple of seasons, turn into a high-octane reliever as soon as this year or become a valuable trade piece.