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James Nelson: Marlin on the Rise

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Everything you need to know about the breakout star of the Fish’s farm system.

Nelson with his cousin Maddox B. Gilbert
Photo by @NAKJENEA/Twitter

James Nelson was arguably the most popular Miami Marlins prospect in 2017.

And for good reason. In a farm system that had recently been wrecked by injuries, underachievers and ill-advised trades, Nelson made a huge leap forward. He anchored the Single-A Greensboro lineup while being younger than any of his 54 teammates.

It’s a summer Nelson will never forget. The Marlins made sure of that by etching his stats into this Organizational Player of the Year trophy:

102 G, 395 AB, 41 R, 122 H, 31 2B, 7 HR, 59 RBI, 26 BB, .309 BA, .354 OBP, .456 SLG
Original video by @woahhitsnelly/Instagram

Nelson sees room for further improvement despite coming off such a promising campaign. Two particular numbers bothered him: seven and 19.

That first one was Nelson’s home run total. Maybe he could settle for seven dingers as a shortstop (where he usually played as an amateur). However, there’s traditionally more power production expected of third basemen.

The other number would never be displayed on an award. That 19 signifies how many errors he committed, the most on the Grasshoppers. Understandable considering that Nelson is still getting acclimated to his new position, but unacceptable in the eyes of a competitor who wants to succeed in every big moment—on both sides of the ball.

Here’s some bad news for Nelson’s 2018 opponents:

“I almost accomplished everything I was aiming for this offseason as far as being stronger, faster and more flexible,” he tells Fish Stripes.

Nelson was born to play this game, and that genuine passion continues to drive him toward the major leagues.

Nothing to see here, just your regular round of batting practice...in December.
Original video by @WoahitsNelly/Twitter

“Baseball has been a top priority in his life since he could pick up a ball,” according to his aunt, Nakia Williams. The journey began 65 miles west of Tallahassee in Marianna, Florida, where Nelson spent his early childhood as “the most spoiled little boy on Earth.”

Derek Jeter was my favorite player growing up,” he said on 27 Outs Baseball’s The Interview podcast earlier this offseason. (They still haven’t met each other, though.)

His dedication to baseball intensified after moving to Georgia during his elementary school years. Williams remembers a United States Specialty Sports Association tournament (USSSA) when Nelson was 10. With longtime major leaguer and current MLB Network analyst Harold Reynolds in attendance, he smacked a grand slam. Putting the nerves aside and performing so well encouraged him to keep grinding.

Meanwhile, his uncle—infielder Chris Nelson—signed his first professional contract as the Colorado Rockies’ first-round draft pick in 2004. Chris would make his big league debut in 2010 and play for four different teams (primarily the Rockies).

Like his uncle, James attended Redan High School (Stone Mountain, GA). Brandon Phillips and Domonic Brown are also among the school’s MLB alumni.

You see the resemblance, right? Watch the front leg:

James Nelson with Greensboro Grasshoppers, 2017
Chris Nelson with San Diego Padres, 2014

The Nelsons also took the same route to the pros by spending one season at junior college. James chose Cisco College (Cisco, TX) on the recommendation of an advisor, passing on the Boston Red Sox after they selected him in the 18th round of the 2015 draft.

He previously explained that decision to Minor League Ball’s Clinton Riddle:

“The biggest reason [for turning down Boston] was that I was a shortstop, and a young shortstop, at that. We were looking at the fact that they had a lot of depth in the infield, and I didn’t think I’d get a lot of playing time to show what I could do.”

But Nelson is comfortable making his own adjustments, too. The sweet swing that earned him accolades last season started from a very different hand position than uncle Chris used in his stance.

It happened organically after joining the Marlins as a 15th-rounder in 2016, he says:

“It’s funny because I haven’t [always] hit the way I hit now. I switched my stance coming into my first year of pro ball. We were doing a drill and my hands just naturally went low and I was like, ‘This feels real comfortable!’ Ever since then, I kept hitting that way.”

Nelson has made himself extremely unpredictable, spraying hits to all fields and actually showing more power to center and right than to his pull side:

2017 regular season spray chart
Image created by MLBfarm.com

Talent evaluators are finally buying in. MLB Pipeline put Nelson 16th in their updated Marlins organizational rankings. He was No. 15 on Minor League Ball’s list. ESPN’s Keith Law (Insider subscription required) ranked him 10th, convinced that he has the potential to be an everyday player at the highest level.

If there’s one concern, it would be the lack of launch angle. Nelson posted a 55.2 percent ground ball rate in 2017, seventh-highest among the 66 qualifiers in the South Atlantic League. Newly traded Miami outfielder Christian Yelich—career 59.1 GB%—remains loyal to that approach despite solid-but-not-special offensive results.

Nelson has no immediate plans to conform to the MLB trend of swinging for the fences:

“It’s working and it got me to where I am now. And it’s funny, because I’ve always been told ground balls in practice turn into line drives in the game, line drives in practice turn into home runs in the game, and home runs in practice are fly balls in the game.”

His next adjustment is more physical than mechanical. Still officially listed at 180 pounds, the 20-year-old tells Fish Stripes he bulked up to 200 heading into spring training (he has since shaved off a few ounces).

Nelson laughs at old footage of his slimmer self sprinting, like this 6.70-second 60-yard dash from three years ago. He’s confident that the added muscle won’t limit his athleticism.

“I was slow,” Nelson says looking back at the 2015 World Showcase
Original video by Perfect Game

Once again, Nelson figures to be one of the youngest players on his team. He’s projected to open 2018 at High-A Jupiter.

As he works toward another Player of the Year-caliber season, there will be significant developments to monitor in the Marlins infield. Brian Anderson and JT Riddle have opportunities to establish themselves on the left side of the diamond, and both are under long-term club control. Their success would block Nelson’s clearest path to the majors.

“It’s my dream to play in the big leagues,” he told The Interview podcast, “no matter what team it is.”

Nakia Williams describes her nephew as kind, caring and laid-back. Those qualities have been obvious to the public since he re-activated his social media accounts last January. Alex Ferrer won an autographed card and Amazon Echo Dot in Nelson’s holiday season sweepstakes on Twitter, to give just one example.

“He is one of those kids everyone dreams about having,” Williams says.

With all due respect to Anderson and Riddle, many Marlins fans are probably rooting for a scenario where Nelson makes it to Miami and helps lead the franchise’s exciting core into a bright future.

Follow James Nelson on Twitter (@WoahitsNelly) and Instagram (@woahhitsnelly)