Nelson eyeing coveted roster spot
One-time top Brewers prospect a strong outfield contender
PHOENIX -- Brad Nelson has gone ice cold in Brewers camp, but he needs only to look at his uniform number and the calendar to see that this is his best chance yet to crack the Opening Day roster.
Nelson, 26, is wearing No. 27 instead of one of the "offensive line numbers" he was assigned in past camps, one sign that he's more established in the organization. And despite the fact that his bat has gone silent over the last week, he's still in big league camp on March 17 competing for a job.
"Usually I'd be long gone by now," said Nelson, the one-time top prospect who is in his fourth big league camp. "I was always one of the first guys sent over there [to Minor League camp], so I'd always be looking at the date and wondering, 'OK, when is it going to be?'"
Now he is a strong contender for a job as one of Milwaukee's backup outfielders. Nelson moved back to first base last season, but he has played the corner outfield spots extensively this spring and has proved an adequate defender.
Nelson started in left field against the Giants on Tuesday and tried to get back on track. He was hitting .563 on March 9, the last time the Brewers visited Scottsdale Stadium, but then went hitless in his next 12 at-bats before rapping an RBI single in the sixth inning of Tuesday's rematch.
Still, he entered the game hitting .346 and, if camp broke tomorrow, would probably join Chris Duffy as the Brewers' backup outfielders.
"This is pretty much the best-case scenario I've ever had," Nelson said. "You always want to come in feeling like you have a chance to make the team, and you do, but let's be honest. There's always only a couple open spots. That's reality.
"I feel good about this year. I wanted to come in and show what I could do. First impressions are always key, so in that I think I'm doing OK."
The key, Nelson said, was eliminating the pronounced front leg lift that used to kick-start his swing. He described it as "Jenkins-esque," a phrase any Brewers fan who watched outfielder Geoff Jenkins during his long Milwaukee career would understand.
Last year near the end of Spring Training, Nelson substituted the "kick" for a toe-tap. The results were immediate.
"It was a timing thing, but it had to be so perfect for it to work," Nelson said. "That really screwed me up and I think it's one of the reasons I was striking out so much. I switched to the toe-tap and it really helped me out."
Dramatically. The man who led the Double-A Southern League in 2004 with 146 strikeouts in 500 at-bats while drawing only 47 walks and had a career strikeouts-to-walks ratio of 655 to 310 suddenly became a model of plate patience. He struck out 77 times in 475 at-bats at Triple-A Nashville last season while working 73 walks.
"So it was basically one-to-one," Nelson said. "I just decided before the season that I needed to figure something out. I started messing around with the toe-tap, and now I feel a lot more comfortable with it. It helps me keep my head still, get started earlier and just be overall more relaxed at the plate."
Now it's up to manager Ken Macha and the Brewers' front office to decide Nelson's fate.
"In the bench and the bullpen and the competition that's there, you have groups on both sides," Macha said. "Meaning, you have people that have a track record and you have to use filtered glasses to watch what they are doing in Spring Training, and then you have guys who are excelling in Spring Training and have zero track record. ... That's going to create an interesting study."
The way Macha sees it, veteran utility man Craig Counsell is a lock to make the team. The Brewers will also carry a backup catcher, so that leaves three open spots on the bench.
While the more veteran -- and left-handed hitting -- Mike Lamb gets a look at third base alongside younger righty Casey McGehee, Nelson and Duffy look like the early front-runners in an outfield competition that also includes Trot Nixon and Tony Gwynn Jr. Nixon fits the veteran mold but he has not been very good in the Cactus League, and Gwynn has yet to get on the field because of a right shoulder injury. Macha said Tuesday that Gwynn could play by the weekend.
Duffy is difficult to slot in terms of youth vs. experience but could fill a role as a backup center fielder and quality defender. Nelson, who has seven regular-season at-bats in the Major Leagues (he went 2-for-7 last September) could serve as a power bat off the bench.
"Some of the guys getting hurt have helped my cause, there's no getting around that," Nelson said. "I try not to think about [the looming roster decisions]. All I can do is go play."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.