With his agreement to terms on a minor league, make-good deal in the spring with the St. Louis, 39-year-old reliever Jeff Nelson could be lined up to make his first-ever National League appearance with the 2006 Cardinals in his 15th season in the majors.
In the crazy world of major professional sports, a deal that would pay at most $1 million for the season is viewed as a relative bargain. But, you usually get what you pay for and Nelson may not be an exception.
While a number of Cardinals fans seem positive about Nelson, I am not necessarily among them. People tend to remember the Jeff Nelson of old, who mixed a nasty slider with a cut fastball that regularly registered over 90 MPH on the radar gun. Unfortunately, that guy hasn’t been seen in awhile. In his place is the wily veteran who gets by on locating his pitches - sometimes better than others.
On the positive side, Nelson comes into 2006 well-rested. Despite not being injured, Nelson was banished to the deepest depths of Seattle's pen last season. In fact, he appeared in only 18 games in the second half for 9-2/3 innings in total and a small-sample size ERA of 5.59.
But, it wasn’t a big loss for Seattle, as Nelson made only $400,000 last year. How about having a season like that and still doubling your salary the next season? What a great game this is!
As I said, Nelson had an injury-free (and partially work-free) 2005, but endured two stints on the disabled list in 2004 while with Texas due to right knee and elbow injuries. That year he appeared in just 29 games.
In recent campaigns, Nelson has been generally effective against righthanders, but much less so against lefties. Over the past three seasons combined, Nelson has held righties to a .218 average, while lefties hit him at a .273 clip.
While his numbers are not identical to that of recent signee Braden Looper, the conclusion to be drawn from them is similar. Bring in Nelson to face a tough righthanded hitter late in the game, but have a lefty ready when needed. Let’s just hope Tony La Russa has enough bullpen arms to go around, as his match-up wheels will certainly be spinning in 2006.
Perhaps the “extra arm” theory would help me feel a bit better, since Nelson is not guaranteed a spot on the team. But, the fact is that I was just fine with the pre-Nelson 11-man staff of Carpenter, Mulder, Marquis, Suppan, Ponson, Reyes, Isringhausen, Looper, Rincon, Flores and Thompson, with Rule 5 pickup Juan Mateo as the possible #12.
Time will tell if any of these pitchers stumble or are injured in spring training, opening up a spot. But, there is always the possibility that a Carmen Cali or Tyler Johnson might jump the queue ahead of Nelson, anyway.
My final concern is about Nelson’s attitude. Apparently the Cards needed a new pitcher to play the designated bullpen troublemaker role with the departure of Steve Kline and later Julian Tavarez and Ray King. And, they may have the right man for the job.
In 2000, Nelson publicly showed up his manager, the easy-going Joe Torre, when he mouthed off to the New York press that Torre would regret not naming him to the American League All-Star squad. Three years later, Nelson blasted the Mariners’ management because they did not bring in what he believed were needed reinforcements at the trading deadline. That outburst got Nelson a one-way ticket back to New York.
Along with Sidney Ponson, the Cardinals are also filling their police blotter by signing Nelson. That same 2003 postseason after rejoining the Yankees, Nelson was the focal point of an ugly fight that broke out in Boston that involved a Fenway Park groundskeeper and led to charges being filed. Nelson received probation, community service and an anger management evaluation.
Nelson is also replacing Tavarez in another dubious way, as he was fined by MLB earlier in that 2003 season for hitting Arizona’s Luis Gonzalez with a pitch apparently on purpose. In fact, Nelson’s career hit-by-pitch rate of 18.9 batters per thousand is second highest among active major leaguers. (Julian Tavarez is eighth at 16.49.) That is a trait that La Russa can be none too proud of.
In his favor, despite Nelson’s prior outbursts, these same teams keep taking him back. He’s been with the Mariners three times, the Yankees twice, with a year in Texas thrown in for good measure.
Still, given his recent results and past reputation, Nelson has to “show me” before I am convinced he has what it takes to make the 2006 Cardinals.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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