PHOENIX — Jimmy Nelson won’t be throwing a pitch for at least a few more weeks as he continues rehabbing from last year’s season-ending shoulder surgery.
But when Milwaukee Brewers pitchers headed out for their first spring training bullpen sessions last week, Nelson was there with them, keeping a watchful eye while seated at a chair behind the practice mounds at Maryvale Baseball Park.
“If he wasn’t in the bullpen, I would have been shocked,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said of Nelson, who suffered a torn labrum in his right shoulder when he dove back to first base in a Sept. 8 game against the Cubs.
So instead of preparing his arm for the season, Nelson, 28, is trying to help his teammates get ready for 2018.
“I can’t get on the mound right now but I want to be the leader of this staff,” Nelson said. “One thing I see that comes with the responsibility is being out there with the guys, so I try to be out there for all their bullpens.”
During one of the first workouts this spring, Nelson had been keeping an eye on Brandon Woodruff, one of several pitchers competing for a spot in Milwaukee’s rotation. Nelson noticed something in Woodruff’s delivery that looked off, but familiar, so he pulled the young right-hander aside for a chat.
“He has great stuff, it’s just not quite polished yet,” Nelson said. “But there are things I see with him that are similar to what happened when I came up.
“You get a lot of joy out of seeing something like that with Woody during his bullpen. He was struggling that day but if I go out to his next one and see him get the results he wants, I’m as excited about it as he is.”
Nelson was a highly-touted prospect when he made his debut in 2013. Many thought he would be Milwaukee’s next great homegrown pitching prospect when he went 11-13 with a 4.11 ERA in 2015, his first full big league season.
But Nelson regressed a year later, walking a league-high 86 hitters and hitting 17 en route to an 8-16 record.
Last season, Nelson started slowly, going 5-4 with a 3.50 ERA through his first 15 starts but caught fire after that, going 7-2 with a 3.48 ERA in his next 14 starts.
Nelson had thrown five scoreless innings Sept. 8 vs. the Cubs when he hurt his shoulder trying to get back to first base.
Ten days later, Nelson underwent surgery in Los Angeles, where Dr. Neal ElAttrache performed the procedure. After that, it was all rehab, all the time. Nelson installed a hyperbaric chamber in his Houston-area home and along with routine post-surgery rehab and care, he added pilates and an improved diet to his offseason plan.
All that helped accelerate Nelson’s recovery. When pitchers and catchers reported to Phoenix earlier this month, Nelson was far enough along that he was able to take part in all activities — except, throwing off a mound.
“This is a tough situation ,but every one of these guys have checked in on me,” Nelson said. “Me being out there and trying to help them is showing them that I care.”
Along with helping guide some of Milwaukee’s younger talent through camp, Nelson is making sure to absorb as much as he can, too, from some of the veteran pitchers the Brewers brought in.
Nelson was behind the cage as Yovani Gallardo threw live batting practice this week, and has been spending time with non-roster invitee Wade Miley, too.
“It goes both ways,” Nelson said. “They go out there and start painting so that’s when I go to them asking them about throwing certain pitches.”
Counsell sees Nelson’s participation as a way to stay sharp during a time that can be boring even if a player is healthy, but also as a sign that Nelson is maturing.
“There are some limits on things he can do right now, but this is something he can do,” Counsell said. “When you’re around a little longer, it’s easier to see what’s around you.
“He’s able to see there’s a lot around him that he can impact and it’s a sign of maturity and experience that he can recognize that.”