Brewers top pitching prospect Nelson dominating in Nashville

The Nashville Sounds are stocked with pitching talent, notably with the Milwaukee Brewers' top pitching prospect Jimmy Nelson. The former University of Alabama star is more than holding his own against Triple-A competition this season, writes Greg Pogue.

Nashville Sounds starter Jimmy Nelson owns the second-best ERA (1.71) in Triple-A's Pacific Coast League this season.

Brad Penner / USA TODAY Sports

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Jimmy Nelson doesn't mind the label of top pitching prospect for the Milwaukee Brewers, but he does get some grief about it from his Nashville Sounds teammates.

"It's just stuff you try not to concentrate on," said Nelson, the Brewers' 2010 second-round draft pick. "Of course, you get worn out a little bit about it from the (teammates) in here, but it's all in good fun.
 It's just something for the fans to see from the outside looking in and see what kind of stuff we have in our system and what to look forward to."

What Nelson is looking forward to most these days is making the Brewers' starting rotation and staying there. He got a taste of "The Show" last year when he was called up for the first time as major league rosters expanded in September. After three relief appearances for the Brewers, he made his starting debut against the New York Mets, going five strong innings and allowing only one hit and one earned run in the no-decision. In all, he pitched 10 innings with a 0.90 ERA with eight strikeouts.

Back at Triple-A Nashville this year, Nelson is currently riding a string of nine straight quality starts in racing out to a 5-1 record and a 1.71 ERA, the second-best mark in the Pacific Coast League.

"Right now, it's the command of his pitches," Sounds pitching coach Fred Dabney said. "A couple of things that are helping him out is that he is able to throw his sinker to both sides of the plate. Then, he's mixing in the changeup a little bit more consistently, using it more and trusting it more."

When he was drafted out of the University of Alabama, the 6-foot-6, 245-pound right-hander was considered a power pitcher. But as he climbed through the minor leagues, Nelson complemented his fastball that can steadily reach 96 miles per hour with a nasty slider that tops out in the low-90s.

But what makes him major-league worthy is development of a deceptive changeup that he can now throw as an out pitch.

"He has confidence in it, which is a good thing because it started off as his third-best pitch," Dabney said. "But he's using it more effectively. It's closer to his slider than it was further away from it. It's now more of a major-league pitch for him."

But don't kid yourself. It's Nelson's fastball that has Brewers fans frothing. In last Sunday's no-decision (a walk-off loss to Iowa), Nelson threw six scoreless innings and matched a season high of nine strikeouts. One radar gun had him topping at 99 miles per hour on several pitches.

"I've got a couple different fastballs -- a four-seam and the sinker -- and I use both of them to lefties and righties," Nelson said. "It helps having two different fastballs with two different looks, even though they are generally in the same speed range. I try to throw the slider hard to have it kind of look like the fastball out of the hand. It has been a good pitch for me my whole career."

Nelson's emergence for the Brewers helped ease the loss of not being able to sign pitcher Dylan Covey, the team's 2010 first-round draft pick who instead signed collegiately at San Diego State. He was drafted three years later in the fourth round by the A's and is pitching this season for the club's Single-A team in the Midwest League.

Then again, pitching depth is a strong suit throughout the Brewers' organization, including the current rotation of veterans Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse, Matt Garza and Marco Estrada. The fifth starter is promising Wily Peralta, an undrafted signee in his second season who emerged from franchise's top pitching prospect label, the one now held by Nelson.

Brewers middle reliever Tyler Thornburg, the team's third-round draft pick in 2010, is expected to eventually emerge as a starter as well. This season, he has pitched in 22 games and is 3-1 with a 2.28 ERA, plus 23 strikeouts in 22 2/3 innings. And there's more on the way, considering the Sounds' pitching staff is the best in the PCL, leading in team ERA (3.86) and strikeouts (389 in 393 1/3 innings). They've also allowed the fewest runs (181), earned runs (161) and home runs (31).

Battling with Nelson to be Sounds' ace -- and potentially be first in line for a call-up -- is right-handed starter Mike Fiers, who is 6-1 with a 2.43 ERA, fifth-best in the PCL. He went 9-10 with a 3.74 ERA as part of the Milwaukee rotation two years ago.

"Our system here with the Brewers has been underrated for years," Nelson said. "We've got a lot of guys that are very under the radar. We all work hard and get our work done. I'm happy to be able to be in this group of guys. There are a lot of good guys in this system."

Sounds pitching this season is the main reason the team has gone from having the worst record in the PCL in 2013 to leading the league's American Southern Division entering Thursday night's game.

"That's a great thing for the Milwaukee Brewers' organization to have these types of arms," Dabney said. "It's been a blessing to us (in Nashville). Our job here in the minor leagues is, when they need somebody, that we have people ready.

"And we're looking good in that aspect. Everything is clicking and going well."

While Nelson figures there are several major league rotations he is worthy of now joining, he understands that he has to bide his time in Nashville until the opportunity comes in Milwaukee or elsewhere.

"It's something I really haven't been trying to think about," Nelson said of making a big-league roster for good. "I'm just really, truthfully, trying to take care of business here, as cliché as it sounds. There are reasons why everybody is here. There are certain things they have to work on to get up there. There are several guys on this team that I believe can be in the big leagues, but you just have to wait for your opportunity and refine your game while you're here."