The future path of the Milwaukee Brewers franchise was permanently altered on September 8th, 2017 when Jimmy Nelson took a fateful dive back into first base.
Seeing Jimmy Nelson back in Milwaukee, although with a Dodgers uniform on this time, got me wondering: What would the world look like if Jimmy Nelson had never gotten hurt?
As many remember, Jimmy Nelson had established himself as the ace of the Brewers rotation in the middle of the 2017 season. From May 28th through September 8th of that year, Nelson made 20 starts and had a 3.21 ERA with 155 strikeouts in 126 innings.
As the Brewers made their unexpected push towards October baseball in 2017, Nelson became the most important player on the roster, with the Brewers winning each of final five starts.
On a fateful day in September at Wrigley Field, the entire future for the Brewers and Jimmy Nelson changed.
September 8th, 2017.
Nelson was at the plate and drove a pitch from John Lackey off the wall in left field. The slow-footed Nelson thought about stretching for a double, then realized he wouldn’t make it and scampered back to first base. Worried about a throw, Nelson dove headfirst, and jammed his right arm into the base.
Nelson tore his labrum and did severe structural damage to his shoulder.
Surgery followed, and Nelson worked as hard as he could to rehab and get back on the mound. Then he suffered a setback. Then another setback. Then another setback. After it was thought he could return around June 2018, Nelson ended up missing the entire 2018 season.
He wasn’t ready to go at the beginning of spring training 2019 either, but made a few appearances, and then made his official big league return on June 5th, 2019. He made three starts in the rotation, none of which went well, and then moved to the bullpen. He went back down for a little bit, then came back in September and was better, but not good enough.
Nelson was non-tendered that offseason with one year remaining in arbitration. An unceremonious end to Nelson’s once-budding Brewers career.
What would have happened to the Brewers in an alternate universe where Nelson never hurt his shoulder?
In this alternate universe, Nelson simply goes back into first base standing up, suffering no injury. It’s just a simple base hit that ended up getting eliminated on a double play hit by Eric Thames.
Brewers Make The Postseason In 2017 With Nelson
The Brewers finished one game shy of the postseason in 2017. They didn’t have Nelson for the final few turns through the rotation. The Crew won Nelson’s previous five starts. If Nelson was healthy to finish the season, the Brewers probably would’ve won at least one more game than what they did without him.
If Jimmy Nelson didn’t get hurt, the Brewers would have made their first postseason appearance since 2011 in 2017 instead of 2018. With the way he was pitching, he was unstoppable.
Even if it came to a play-in game or the Wild Card game, Nelson was lined up to pitch for it. With him, I’m convinced that at the very least the Brewers would’ve made the postseason, and if he pitches that Wild Card game, they would’ve stood a good chance of making the NLDS. From there, anything could happen.
That would’ve given the Brewers another postseason appearance to their resume. The rebuild that was started by David Stearns would’ve been completed at hyper-speed levels, in just Stearns’ second full season at the helm.
Brewers World Series Bound In 2018 With Jimmy Nelson?
2018 was obviously the Crew’s most successful season with this core to date. They made it to Game 7 of the NLCS against the Dodgers but fell just short of the World Series.
Coming off a strong season in 2017, Nelson probably would’ve been the Crew’s Opening Day starter in 2018. He’d be continuing his success as he finally achieved his very high ceiling. Nelson was striking guys out, avoiding walks, and keeping runs to a minimum. Having that for a full 162 would’ve given the Crew an even more dominant team in 2018.
It’s likely they wouldn’t have even needed a Game 163 that year to clinch the division.
Instead of a rotation depending on career-best years from Jhoulys Chacin and Wade Miley, the Brewers would’ve have Nelson leading the way with those two behind him in the postseason. The extra depth at the top of the rotation would’ve made winning games in that Dodgers series much easier, as they wouldn’t need to pull Miley after one batter in Game 5 and get super creative with the pitching staff the entire series.
Nelson could’ve made two, possibly three starts in that series if he goes Games 1, 4, and 7. Craig Counsell wouldn’t have had to be as creative and having an arm as talented as a healthy Nelson would most likely put the Brewers over the top in that NLCS. They probably should’ve won that series anyways, but with Nelson, it’s almost a guarantee.
That would’ve given the Brewers their first World Series appearance since 1982 in this alternate universe. I wouldn’t venture as far to say they would definitely win the World Series in 2018 because that Red Sox roster was stacked. But with Nelson there, they absolutely would’ve competed.
Brewers Can Make A Run In 2019
Nelson came back in 2019, but he wasn’t the same. If Nelson had been the same and been continuing to pitch, fully healthy, in 2019, Nelson would’ve been the fully established ace of the staff.
Famously, in 2019, the Brewers went with a young trio in the rotation with Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, and Freddy Peralta. Two of the three bombed out of the rotation that year. With the steady and high performing Nelson in the rotation, the blow would’ve been less damaging with the young kids struggling.
With a healthy Nelson taking the ball every fifth day for the Brewers, odds are they win a few more games in 2019 than they did with the rotation they actually had. That means they likely would’ve ended up winning the division instead of battling in a Wild Card game. That would allow for a larger room for error and another potential deep postseason run. A Nelson-Woodruff 1-2 punch that postseason would be deadly.
2020 and beyond
Nelson’s final year of arbitration was set for 2020 and he would’ve been a free agent after that season. Had Nelson remained healthy from September 8th, 2017 onward, not only would his arbitration price tag have jumped up significantly, but the Brewers likely would’ve tried to work out an extension with Nelson.
A contract extension for Nelson, if he continued performing as he was in 2017, would’ve cost quite the chunk of change. An extension could’ve happened at any point in the previous two years.
It’s unlikely the Brewers would’ve let Nelson walk in free agency had he never been hurt. After all, the final piece of Stearns’ mantra is to retain talent. They would’ve found a way to retain a homegrown ace.
That could mean less money available to sign someone like Yasmani Grandal, or Jackie Bradley, Jr., or Kolten Wong, or even the extension for Christian Yelich. I’m sure Mark Attanasio still would’ve found a way to get the Yelich deal done, but it just would’ve added to the current contract situation.
Think of this rotation in 2021, headed by Woodruff, Burnes, and Peralta. Imagine a healthy, prime Jimmy Nelson also in this group. A Nelson-Woodruff-Burnes-Peralta-Houser rotation would be essentially entirely homegrown talent and practically all of them have stud potential.
That rotation could’ve gone down as one of the all-time greats in history.
Instead, it’s left as a thought. An idea only achieved in an alternate universe in articles like this. We’ll never see this as a reality in front of our eyes.
If Nelson had never injured his shoulder, the Brewers likely would’ve had an extra postseason appearance, a World Series appearance, and an even more dominant rotation. Oh what could have been.
The Brewers still have a strong rotation, and it’s tough to be upset with what they currently have. But what could’ve been with a healthy Nelson will always sting in the back of our minds.