How About Jimmy Nelson as a High-Reward Cubs Relief Target … for 2023?

Whenever the MLB lockout is over and teams begin their mad rush on the remaining free agents, I don’t expect free agent right-hander Jimmy Nelson to be at the top of many most-wanted lists. The former Brewers and Dodgers pitcher has dealt with more than his fair share of injuries over the past several seasons, including, most recently, Tommy John surgery and flexor tendon repair in his throwing arm last August.

And if you’re doing the math at home, yes, that means he is unlikely to pitch at all in 2022. But I still think the Cubs could and should target Nelson this winter with an eye on 2023 and beyond.

We’ve seen the Cubs – and other aggressive teams – make this play a dozen times before. You sign a guy ahead of a season in which he’s likely to be out with an injury for the privilege of keeping him under team control for (at least) his first season back. In return, the player gets a paycheck during the year he’s rehabbing and the security of a job when everything is all healed up. He may give up some contractual upside if things all went perfectly, but he might also never pitch successfully again. That’s all part of the give and take.

Do lottery tickets and rehab projects often work out? Not often, no. But sometimes. And when they do, the impact can be significant relative to the cost. And moreover, when Nelson does return, I don’t actually envision him stepping back into a rotation. And that could lower the bar of qualifying success.

In 29.0 mostly relief innings for the Dodgers last season, Nelson, 32, was absolutely lights out: 37.9% strikeout rate, .141 average against with a 1.86 ERA and 1.89 FIP. He also maintained an excellent 30.9% hard-hit% with an average exit velocity of just 84.5 MPH. For reference, relievers allowed an average exit velocity of 88.5 MPH last season with a 24% strikeout rate. He was very, very good.

And it’s not all that surprising.

Most Cubs fans can remember Nelson’s time as a starter with the Brewers, and he’s always been pretty good (especially in 2017: 3.49 ERA, 3.37 FIP; 4.8 fWAR). But as a reliever for the Dodgers last season, Nelson was able to dial up his fastball to ~94 MPH on average. And by eliminating his less effective changeup while emphasizing his slider (up to 33.3% from 18.5% for his career) and curveball (up to 33.7% up from 16.5% for his career), he was able to enjoy a lot more success. It’s a pretty standard formula for starters transitioning to the bullpen. Tweak the repertoire, throw a little harder, enjoy some more short-term success.

And that’s what I’d be banking on recapturing for the Cubs in 2023.

It’s hardly a foolproof plan — Nelson might seek opportunities from teams who have the same idea, but will promise him a shot at starting again *or* he may never again be fully healthy — but at the very least, we wouldn’t have to simply imagine or hope that he could be one of the pitchers who can actually successfully make the transition into a reliever. He’s already done it. He’s already found a balance that works for him. Heck, a balance that makes him DOMINANT.

So at the end of the day, that’s all this is about. If the Cubs really are willing to spend extra in the short term, especially for high-risk/high-upside plays, targeting someone like Nelson now could set them up for a major win in 2023 when they figure to be a little more competitive. They do moves like this all the time and it shouldn’t take away from any other plans they may have for 2022. Maybe this year’s project will be Jimmy Nelson.

written by

Michael Cerami began covering the Chicago Cubs for Bleacher Nation as a part-time contributor in 2015. One year later, he joined Bleacher Nation full-time, covering the Chicago Cubs and Major League Baseball. Today, Michael runs Bleacher Nation, contributing as a writer (Cubs, MLB) and an editor for all sections of the site, including the Chicago Bears, Bulls, and Blackhawks, as well as MLB, NBA, NHL, and NFL. In 2019, Michael was the co-host of NBC Sports Chicago's Cubs Post-Game Show Outside the Ivy. You can find him on Twitter/X @Michael_Cerami

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