On Monday morning, the Rockies brought back a former member of the left side of their infield who was a top-ten overall pick and part of Colorado's last winning season. But wait! It's not the guy you think... it's Chris Nelson, returning to the organization on a minor league deal after three years elsewhere on a professional baseball odyssey.
If you haven't kept up with Nelson after he left Colorado the first time back in 2013, the former first round pick (2004) and Georgia native has spent time with the Yankees, Angels, Reds, Padres, Phillies, Brewers, and Nationals, appearing in both the Major Leagues and Triple-A (though he didn't appear in the big leagues at all in 2015).
On one level, that's relatively surprising, considering Nelson never got near the potential the Rockies hoped he had coming out of high school in 2004 after slowly working his way up the minor league system. But on the other hand, well, a former first round draft pick is going to get a lot of opportunities in professional baseball—and as Nelson transitions into his true pro ceiling, as a fourth/fifth utility infielder, he has a chance to carve out a big league role for at least the next few years, even if it's not the one initially pegged for him more than a decade ago.
So while he's an old friend and pretty well-known within the organization and its fans, let's run him through as part of our continued series of free agent newcomers to profile ahead of spring training. For Nelson, it's been a hell of a journey across baseball the last three seasons.
Scouting Chris Nelson
Nelson never really hit in Denver, save one big year in 2012, and after he left the Rockies he never really hit elsewhere in the big leagues, either, when he appeared for both the Yankees and Angels in 2013, and the Padres in 2014. To put our profile in context, here's his full Major League stat line:
|2013||New York Yankees||10||37||36||3||8||2||0||0||2||0||1||11||.222||.243||.278||.521|
|2013||Los Angeles Angels||33||119||109||10||24||1||2||3||18||2||8||36||.220||.277||.349||.626|
|2014||San Diego Padres||27||81||73||5||17||3||0||0||7||1||7||14||.233||.296||.274||.570|
The 2012 season should stand out, of course—the Rockies finally gave Nelson some time and space to play, and really, he rewarded them with a very strong season at the plate while predominantly playing third base. But a slower start to begin 2013, a guy named Nolan Arenado waiting in the wings, and a lot of other factors started the big league journey for Nelson since that time, and he now comes full circle returning to Colorado.
He's never done anything notable at the Major League level outside of Denver, but then again he hasn't been given a ton of time to get into a rhythm, anyways. Minor injuries, promotions and demotions, and more have contributed to what overall looks like something (202 big league games from 2012 through 2014, that's a decent amount!) but when split between four organizations, suddenly loses a bit of luster.
Here are the stats from his recent, applicable appearances in the high minor leagues since departing Colorado a little less than three years ago:
|2013||Salt Lake||LAA / AAA||33||109||10||24||1||2||3||18||2||8||36||.220||.277||.349||.626|
|2014||Louisville||CIN / AAA||63||237||26||65||9||0||4||38||0||18||52||.274||.330||.363||.693|
|2014||El Paso||SD / AAA||24||82||13||24||6||1||2||21||0||18||16||.293||.422||.463||.885|
|2015||Syracuse||WAS / AAA||28||94||11||26||10||0||3||14||1||9||14||.277||.337||.479||.815|
|2015||Colorado Springs||MIL / AAA||29||70||4||10||2||1||1||10||1||5||17||.143||.200||.243||.443|
|2015||Lehigh Valley||PHI / AAA||16||54||5||15||4||0||0||5||1||4||8||.278||.328||.352||.679|
Combine the big leagues and Triple-A, and since his time in Colorado, he's put on nine different uniforms in not even three full seasons. Really, it's quite a testament to Nelson that he's been able to fight through the last several years and come out with yet another contract in affiliated baseball this spring. The man has nine lives.
Those minor adversities have given the now-utility infielder quite the whirlwind since the Rockies moved on from him the first time, with a transaction log over the last three years that has more tickets punched than Taylor Swift's passport after the 1989 World Tour, according to data from MiLB.com:
|February 15, 2016||Colorado Rockies signed free agent 3B Chris Nelson to a minor league contract.|
|November 14, 2015||Naranjeros de Hermosillo placed 3B Chris Nelson on the reserve list.|
|November 14, 2015||Naranjeros de Hermosillo activated 3B Chris Nelson.|
|November 4, 2015||Naranjeros de Hermosillo placed 3B Chris Nelson on the reserve list.|
|October 27, 2015||3B Chris Nelson assigned to Naranjeros de Hermosillo.|
|July 25, 2015||Syracuse Chiefs released 3B Chris Nelson.|
|June 21, 2015||3B Chris Nelson assigned to Syracuse Chiefs.|
|June 21, 2015||Washington Nationals signed free agent 3B Chris Nelson to a minor league contract.|
|June 17, 2015||Colorado Springs Sky Sox released 3B Chris Nelson.|
|May 9, 2015||3B Chris Nelson assigned to Colorado Springs Sky Sox.|
|May 9, 2015||Milwaukee Brewers signed free agent 3B Chris Nelson to a minor league contract.|
|May 8, 2015||Lehigh Valley IronPigs released 3B Chris Nelson.|
|November 25, 2014||3B Chris Nelson assigned to Lehigh Valley IronPigs.|
|November 25, 2014||Philadelphia Phillies signed 3B Chris Nelson to a minor league contract and invited him to spring training.|
|September 29, 2014||3B Chris Nelson elected free agency.|
|September 4, 2014||San Diego Padres sent 3B Chris Nelson outright to El Paso Chihuahuas.|
|September 2, 2014||San Diego Padres designated 3B Chris Nelson for assignment.|
|August 30, 2014||San Diego Padres placed 3B Chris Nelson on the paternity list.|
|July 18, 2014||San Diego Padres selected the contract of 3B Chris Nelson from El Paso Chihuahuas.|
|June 19, 2014||3B Chris Nelson assigned to El Paso Chihuahuas.|
|June 18, 2014||San Diego Padres signed free agent 3B Chris Nelson to a minor league contract.|
|June 6, 2014||Louisville Bats released 3B Chris Nelson.|
|April 7, 2014||3B Chris Nelson assigned to Louisville Bats.|
|April 6, 2014||Cincinnati Reds signed free agent 3B Chris Nelson to a minor league contract.|
|March 29, 2014||Cincinnati Reds released 3B Chris Nelson.|
|January 28, 2014||Cincinnati Reds signed 3B Chris Nelson to a minor league contract and invited him to spring training.|
|December 2, 2013||3B Chris Nelson elected free agency.|
|September 17, 2013||Los Angeles Angels activated 3B Chris Nelson from the 15-day disabled list.|
|August 29, 2013||Los Angeles Angels placed 3B Chris Nelson on the 15-day disabled list (right hamstring strain).|
|July 31, 2013||Los Angeles Angels selected the contract of 3B Chris Nelson from Salt Lake Bees.|
|June 13, 2013||Los Angeles Angels sent Chris Nelson outright to Salt Lake Bees.|
|June 10, 2013||Los Angeles Angels designated Chris Nelson for assignment.|
|May 18, 2013||Los Angeles Angels claimed 3B Chris Nelson off waivers from New York Yankees.|
|May 15, 2013||New York Yankees designated Chris Nelson for assignment.|
|May 3, 2013||New York Yankees activated 3B Chris Nelson.|
|May 1, 2013||Colorado Rockies traded 3B Chris Nelson to New York Yankees for cash.|
|April 28, 2013||Colorado Rockies designated Chris Nelson for assignment.|
Wow. Since the day he played his last game in a Rockies uniform in April 2013, that's 37 transactions across professional baseball. Of course, some of them are repetitive (being acquired and then assigned to a certain level counting as two transactions) and some aren't of much note (being placed on a winter club's reserve list), but boy, has Nelson been on a whirlwind the last several seasons.
The Brewers signed him last summer a day after the Phillies released him, and then the Nationals signed him four days after the Brewers released him later in the same season. The Reds brought him to spring training in 2014, cut him before Opening Day, then re-signed him a week later to play in Triple-A Louisville. He was in the big leagues with the Padres in 2014, too, when the team placed him on the paternity list (yay!) only to designate him for assignment two days later. (Womp, womp.)
That's kind of how it goes for a utility infielder, especially one long on experience and shot on options, always warranting a risky roster spot and the DFAs that come with it. That's also how it goes for a guy who, frankly, hasn't done enough at most stops to warrant sticking around longer than he has with one organization, and yet has enough of a big league background and on-field positional flexibility to be able to constantly weigh out new options elsewhere. Such is the benefit of that other thing Chris Nelson has, I suppose: as a former first-round draft pick, he gets a lot of chances, and that means Nelson ought to make a career the next few years out of being on that cusp of Triple-A and the Major Leagues. (Like a lot of guys, after all; it's good work if you can get it.)
As far as his on-field ability, you know what he does: he'll play pretty much every position on defense, he'll be consistent and reliable but not flashy or overly noticeable, maybe he'll hit a little bit (but maybe not), and at this point in his career, he has kind of found where he fits as that fourth or fifth infielder coming off a bench when he gets the opportunity. Here's the breakdown of his defensive career, by position:
And maybe his most memorable moment to date in the Major Leagues, just 'cause:
A steal of home, the last winning Rockies team, Eric Young, Jr., Jim Tracy, Troy Tulowitzki as a much younger guy, Seth Smith, Clint Barmes, Dexter Fowler... ahh, the nostalgia.
Chris Nelson's best comp on the Rockies
Right now Nelson's best comp on the Rockies is, of course, Rafael Ynoa or Daniel Descalso. We know how much manager Walt Weiss loves both Ynoa and Descalso, but there might be some room there for Nelson to jump in and earn a big league job on the bench for this team, which is expected to go nowhere anyways, if he proves he can outhit Ynoa and/or Descalso in the spring and play good enough defense to be that fifth infielder/utility-whatever man off the bench over the summer. Doubtful, but obviously possible, or else he wouldn't even be in camp.
What to expect in 2016
This, of course, is not former first round draft pick Chris Nelson. I mean it is, in the technical sense—he's the same human being, the same player—but this isn't the same guy carrying the same weight and expectations. An everyday role has long passed him by, unless everybody gets injured and he needs to fill in for a few weeks or months, and in that case the season would be well out of the Rockies' hands, anyways. But that doesn't mean he can't contribute, even with far lower expectations than he had with this same club just a few short seasons ago.
The very fact that the Rockies signed Nelson ahead of spring training is an interesting move, if only because it admits either (a) the team is perhaps not sold on Descalso and Ynoa, (b) the team is not yet sold on Cristhian Adames and Trevor Story, (c) the team has decided to add another contingency plan for Jose Reyes' ongoing domestic violence situation—or (d) perhaps most likely, a combination of all the above.
A lot of things could fall one way or another for Nelson this spring; maybe the Rockies will release him before the season ever starts. Maybe he usurps Descalso or Ynoa, or takes Reyes' spot on the 40-man roster, and lives in that utility realm for the big league club this summer. Maybe he plays out all or part of the season in Triple-A Albuquerque. But at still just 29 years old, even with his constant movement around the league, Nelson's career is not yet done and the Rockies didn't just bring him into camp to give a hat tip to one of the organization's former draft picks. In the murky situation that is the Colorado Rockies' current bench, Chris Nelson will get a shot to prove he belongs this spring, albeit with far different expectations than his last time in the organization.