Entering the offseason, the New York Yankees had numerous questions regarding their bullpen. Adam Ottavino had a bad season from a run-prevention standpoint (5.89 ERA), Jonathan Holder had a 2020 that could best be described as uneven, and Tommy Kahnle was lost to Tommy John surgery.
Yet, the organization as a whole has done a fine job during the offseason, and the bullpen outlook is much improved. The Yankees were able to find a taker for Ottavino’s contract and brought Justin Wilson and Darren O’Day aboard to help fill Ottavino’s role and put out fires in the late innings.
Additionally, the team has talented relievers in-house that, with work and discipline, could take the next step in their respective developmental stages and emerge as reliable bullpen arms. That appears to be the case with Nick Nelson, a talented righty who has really impressed manager Aaron Boone during Grapefruit League play.
With Zack Britton’s elbow injury, there is at least one spot in the Yankees’ bullpen up for grabs, and Nelson is doing his best to convince everybody in the organization that he deserves to see his name on the Opening Day roster.
Yes, we know that spring training numbers don’t carry even remotely the same weight as regular season stats, and yes, we are also aware that the available sample size is quite small, but here it goes anyway: Nick Nelson hasn’t walked anyone in his 6.1 innings of work in the Grapefruit League so far. He has allowed four hits, no runs, and has notched six punchouts. He did hit a batter, though, but it’s hard to complain about the zero bases on balls part.
Nelson debuted in 2020 and posted a middling 4.79 ERA (5.56 FIP) in 20.2 innings. However, he conceded 6 of his 11 earned runs in his second game of the year, a 1.2 inning-dud against the Phillies in a game where the Yankees needed length from him in the first leg of a doubleheader. They left him on the mound as he was clobbered.
After that rough outing, Nelson’s ERA in his final 16 innings was a more palatable 2.81, fanning almost a batter per frame. He even chipped in two scoreless outing in the ALDS against the Rays. So it wasn’t as though Nelson was totally in over his head as a rookie.
For much of Nelson’s professional career, mediocre control and command has held him back. He issued 178 walks in 333.1 frames during his stint in the minor leagues, which is quite a bit (a 4.8 BB/9). Of course, he has 387 strikeouts during that time, too, but limiting self-inflicted damage is a must for him, and so far in the spring, he has been successful on that front.
For Nelson, any step forward in the control department can provide the Yankees with a very good reliever. A team like the Yankees can never have enough quality bullpen arms, especially now that Britton will be out of commission for at least a couple of months.
Boone seems to like Nelson as a multi-inning guy, too, or at least that’s what he recently implied:
Aaron Boone says he sees Nick Nelson as potentially having an "immediate" job as a reliever in a Jonathan Loasigia-type role.— Brendan Kuty (@BrendanKutyNJ) March 14, 2021
Jonathan Loáisiga made three starts for the Yankees last year, but he appeared in 12 games and pitched 23 innings. He pitched three frames on three separate occasions, and also reached two an additional four times. Boone likes Nelson for a similar role in 2021.
The skipper has been really impressed with what he has seen out of Nelson in spring training. As he told MLB.com, after he pitched 1.1 scoreless innings on Sunday:
“Nick continues to pitch really well for us. I thought he did a good job overall, pounding the strike zone. He shaped some decent breaking balls in there, flashed the changeup, which he always does.”
The evidence suggests that Nick Nelson is in a pretty good position to make the Yankees on Opening Day and join Aroldis Chapman, Chad Green, Loáisiga, O’Day, Wilson, and Luis Cessa, barring any surprises, in what is shaping up to be a dominant unit. There are a couple of weeks to go to see if he can break camp with the Yankees, but it’s certainly possible.