Nine years is a long time. In June 2004, when Christopher Lars Nelson was drafted 9th overall by the Colorado Rockies, the top single on the Billboard Hot 100 was "Confessions Part II" by Usher. In that year, Barry Bonds hit .362, Vinny Castilla had 131 RBIs, Randy Johnson struck out 290 hitters, and Troy Tulowitzki was a stand-out short stop at Long Beach State.
Nelson was drafted out of high school as a short stop, and it was a long, halting road to the Majors. It took him four years to get out of A ball, but things appeared to start going in the right direction in 2007 when he slugged over .500 with solid walk and strikeout rates. Then the injury bug struck, and it struck hard. Between broken hamates and torn ligaments, Nelson just couldn't stay on the field. When he did play, he often struggled. 2008 was a particular disaster for Nelson, as he put up an OPS south of .700 in AA in 73 games.
Still, he kept plugging along, mastering levels slowly. He finally got his cup of coffee in the Majors in 2010, and bounced back and forth from AAA to the big club in 2011. He got the opening day start at third base in 2012, and accrued 377 plate appearances that year. He really got in a groove in the latter half of that year, hitting .344/.381/.500 in the final 81 games.
But the flaws in Nelson's game were always apparent, even when he was going well. His walk rates have always been low and his strikeout rates high. His offensive game was extremely BABIP dependent; when the balls aren't dropping in, he's not being productive (of course, you could say that about any player, but for a high-strikeout-low-walk guy like Nelson, it's especially disastrous). He never hit well away from Coors. His defense...well, it's been a problem. According to Fangraphs, he cost the team 18.4 runs last year, which is pretty horrendous.
2013 has been especially unkind to Nelson. A .242/.282/.318 from your starting third baseman really hurts. We can't even blame it on an abnormally low BABIP; it sits at .333 for the year. The front office evidently thought he wasn't going to break out of the slump, so they made a change. Up comes the shiny new prospect and out goes the struggling Nelson.
For a more complete breakdown of what is likely to happen to Nelson in the coming days, read about it here in an article by our own Greg Stanwood. Suffice it to say that, more likely than not, Nelson will be playing in a different organization soon.
I for one am sad to see Nelson go. Even though he hasn't had a whole lot of time or success on the Rockies' 25 man roster, he has always seemed like a mainstay in the organization. First round draft picks, especially those who go in the top 10, are always closely scrutinized, as fans look to the Minors for their teams' next star. Nelson's two-steps-forward-one-step-back development was lengthy and frustrating, but when he did get on a roll, you could see why he was drafted so high. The talent was always there.
Nelson's case is quite a bit like the case of one Jayson Nix. The Rockies handed the second base job to Nix out of spring training in 2008, hoping their highly drafted, homegrown player could hold down the fort. After an absolutely brutal 65 plate appearances (he posted a -9 wRC+; I didn't even know wRC+ could go negative), the Rockies pulled the plug on Nix. They sent him back down to AAA, and eventually traded him to the White Sox.
Nix has bounced around the American League the past few seasons, mostly collecting at bats when starting players have gotten injured. He's currently getting significant plate appearances for the Yankees (I think Brian Cashman must have run over a witch doctor's cat or something over the off-season). He's carving out a respectable Major League career, which is nice to see.
Nelson will likely have a similar career arc as Nix. Some team that's in need of a third baseman will probably go out on a limb and give him a shot. Whether he'll ever prove he can stick is up in the air; he's not exactly young anymore, and late career breakthroughs are rare. I'll be rooting for him though. He's never been anything but a class act for the Rockies, and I always want to see the good guys succeed. Good luck Chris.