With the turn of the tide for the Marlins franchise there comes a ripe new group of Jupiter Hammerheads who sense blood in the water. Led by Corey Bird, Brian Miller, Joe Dunand, James Nelson, Sam Perez, Robert Dugger and Ethan Clark, this young crop of Sharks is primed and ready to feed on the rest of the Florida State League.
Leading the school of young pups into battle for a second straight year will be Kevin “Smoke” Randel. A 13th round draft pick by the Marlins out of Long Beach State University, Randel slashed .267/.374/.439 over a seven year playing career, all in the minors. Coincidentally, his best years came with the team he now coaches, the Jupiter Hammerheads. In 2005 and on return trips in 2007 and 2009, Randel hit a combined .294/.392/.480 with a 1.53 K/BB in 933 total at bats. He spent one season above A ball in 2009 and showed decently, hitting .253/.371/.496 while finishing second on the team in walks (62) and homers (12) only to Giancarlo Stanton (16). The lefty hitter who played three infield spots as well as left field could’ve made a decent career as a bench player but having only briefly reached higher than A ball, he instead decided to retire.
Randel spent two years out of the game before returning to the Marlins organization in 2010 as an assistant coach for the Greensboro Grasshoppers. After two years there and two years with the Jacksonville Suns, he received his first head coaching gig in 2015 with Greensboro. After recording a 116-163 record with the Hoppers, he became the Hammerheads manager last season. That team finished just south of .500, by far his best year as a manager. It was made possible by way of a collective 2.82 ERA, second in the Florida State League, a 1.165 WHIP, also second, and a league leading 2.4 K/BB, numbers which evened out lowly offensive numbers such as a team .233 BA, dead last in the league, and 1,236 Ks, also dead last.
Randel returns to Roger Dean Stadium this year with a much improved talent class, undoubtedly the best he’s ever coached. One of Smoke’s most successful alumni, Kyle Barrett who played for Randel first in Greensboro in 2016 and then in Jupiter last season says that his former coach is perfect for player development because although he demands hard work, Randel’s coaching style makes working hard fun. Barrett also commends Randel’s ability to relate to players.
“Smoke is the man, he’s young so he’s not far out of the game and has feel,” Barrett said. “He’s a laid back coach but also holds you accountable. Play the game the right way and you’ll have no issues.”
Rounding out Randel’s staff is Dan Black, another Marlins draftee from 2010 and minor leaguer from then until 2015. A career .253/.326/.344 hitter, Black was teammates with Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich, J.T. Realmuto and briefly with Giancarlo Stanton in 2011 and 2012. In 2013, he also shared a dugout with Derek Dietrich and Jake Marisnick. In 2012, Black had a great year as a Hammerhead, hitting .314/.375/.396 in 78 games before getting his first AA callup. Black says the breakout year was made possible by his ability to modify his approach and attitude, an experience that many minor leaguers struggle through. Black brings the knowledge and graduation of that process to the squad as a coach at a transitional level of development.
“It was a very important year in my personal development. It is very hard to maintain consistency throughout the length of the season, and 2012 was the first year that I had a clear approach at the plate and I stuck with it. I did not try to do to much and just stayed in the gaps and within myself. After that it was just about competing and believing I was not gonna get beat by anyone.”
Needless to say, Black understands what it takes to get the job done at the professional level. According to Black, he prizes the relationships he made as a player and strives to bring the same sense of belonging to the Hammerheads as a mentor.
“I was very fortunate to be surrounded by not only great players but great teammates and coaches,” Black said. “A very special thing that our team possessed and a quality I try and carry out through my coaching is the trust and respect of your fellow teammates and coaches.”
Overall, a grateful and humble Black says he is excited to return as coach and continue to impart wisdom gained through a trying yet successful minor league playing career at the A level on the next crop of young Marlins’ talent.
“I am very blessed to have been apart of this game for as long as I have and to be around some amazing people,” Black said. “I just look forward to helping these men get better and ultimately fulfill there dreams of playing well at the highest level.”
Joining Randel’s staff as hitting coach is Daniel Santin. Santin, a Miami native and attendee of Brito Academy and Miami-Dade College, was a 23rd round pick out of high school by the Mariners in 2003. After hitting ..314/.371/.485 in his first season, the catcher went on to post a career .270/.309/.393 slash line almost entirely at the single A level, including .264/.289/.391 with the Marlins’ single A affiliate in 2007. In 2015, Santin returned to the Marlins organization as hitting coach for the GCL Marlins, a position he has held for the last three seasons. Those three squads hit a collective .245/.323/.415. The promotee replaces Rey Noriega who departs after one season.
CF Corey Bird
LF Brian Miller
SS Joe Dunand
3B James Nelson
2B Riley Mahan
DH Boo Vazquez
RF Stone Garrett
C Jarrett Rindfleisch
1B Will Allen
Bird is a 7th round pick out of Marshall University in 2016. As a member of the Thundering Herd, Bird showcased his on-base instincts and enjoyed a standout .301/.374/342 three year career. He led Marshall in batting average in his freshman (.292) and sophomore (.307) seasons and, being the only player to appear in all 55 of Marshall’s games, was a few hits away from doing so again during an even .300 junior year. That season which would wind up being his draft year, Bird was a first team All-Conference selection. He rounded out his slash line with a .375 OBP and 335 SLG. His career walk rate as a collegiate player was a ridiculous 9.8 and he stole 58 bases in 73 attempts, a 79% success rate.
After finishing his season off by adapting to the speed of the professional ranks in Batavia where he slashed .237/.302/.265, Bird impressed in camp in 2017. After, he was challenged to the prospect of his first full professional season. Bird not only met that challenge, he soared over it it by slashing .294/.360/.387 with a team high 23 steals in 32 attempts, enough to earn him a late season promotion to the Hammerheads. Playing in advanced A ball after being drafted not even a year and a half earlier, Bird’s average persisted as he hit .274 in 113 ABs, a metric that was only limited by the extreme pitcher-friendly confines of Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium that limited him to a .286 BABIP.
In his age 23 season, Bird returns to the Hammerheads to start the year but by as early as midseason, he may find himself headed north on I-95 to Jacksonville. The organization is extremely high on Bird and it’s easy to see why. Standing an even 6’0” at a current 180 pounds, Bird approaches from a straight away stance that sees his back foot straddling the back of the box and that he stays back on advantageously, allowing him to read the break on pitches, no matter how late and if he so chooses, engage a swing that may be the quickest in the organization thanks to his adaptable hands. These are Bird’s best mechanical tools and the bread and butter he projects to ride to the top of an MLB lineup. His swing is lateral and he has the smarts to settle for what he is given and he rarely presses, even when he is infrequently behind in the count. A heady hitter with a good working knowledge of the zone and how to approach ABs from a catalytic standpoint and poke out hits via solid plate coverage then late his plus speed go to work for him on the basepaths where he shows equally good instincts, Bird projects as a prototypical leadoff hitter. That said, although he will probably never be a true power threat, he is still building strength and when at his potential ceiling, could be an increased threat for true extra base hits, based on the speed of his swing alone. Coupled with good reads and equally as quick instincts in the field, Bird‘s ceiling should be placed at that of Austin Jackson, a career .275/.335/.402 hitter with a 73% stolen base percentage.
Miller is a 2017 Marlins’ first round draftee, taken with the last pick of that round, 36th overall, with a competitive balance selection. He hails from the University of North Carolina, a team he made as a preferred walk-on back in 2014. Virtually unknown, Miller went on to enjoy a .332/.419/.453 career in Carolina blue all while fulfilling a childhood dream to play on their field.
Miller’s lasting impression upon scouts was a .343/.422/.502 junior year, a line he held down while taking the most ABs in the ACC. For a third straight season, he walked more than he struck out (35/38 K/BB), ending his collegiate career with a ridiculous 0.88 K/BB ratio. He was also once again unstoppable on the basepaths, swiping 24 bags in 30 chance a total which was good for second most in the ACC and which gave him a career success rate of 81% in stolen base opportunities (55/68).
The biggest thing Miller proved in his junior year of college was that he has the ability to be more than a pure singles threat. After heading into that season with just two career homers, Miller slammed a respectable seven bombs on top of 16 doubles and three triples, leading to a .159 ISO. His five-tool type season pushed Miller up draft ranks to what was thought to be a late second round selection. According to Miller, it was his support system that was the biggest catalyst in getting him to that position.
“Getting picked in the first round was pretty cool, but it’s not really a goal I had all along because I just wanted to play for a team that valued me and gave me a chance to succeed,” Miller told me a few months ago. “There are a lot of very very good baseball players that didn’t get picked that high and will have great careers. Your junior year there’s so much noise out there about you as a player or where you might get picked. I was very blessed to have great friends and family around me that helped me tune all of that out and just play as hard as I could for my school.”
Upon being drafted, Miller, who forwent being sent to Batavia, spent the rest of 2017 by making his pro debut in front of his family and friends. He responded by hitting .322/.384/.416 for the Grasshoppers. His success on the bases persisted as he stole 21 bags in 27 attempts. Despite the change in competition level, his solid patience also stayed strong as he posted a more than respectable 35/23 K/BB.
Heading into 2018, Miller rides that fantastic ability to adapt into a pitcher friendly Florida State League especially at home at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium. Even though it will no doubt be a tough test for him after just 57 games in low A, if there’s anyone who has the ability to conquer it, it’s the same guy who went from near obscurity to a great fantastic career to an impressive initial showing in pro ball Greensboro.
My 2017 Prospect of the Year, Miller exhibits four out of the five major tools. His excellent patience, strike zone knowledge and plate vision allow him to both avoid strikeouts and, coupled with his extremely shortened, lateral and lightning quick line drive cut, hit for a plus average. As quick as his hands at the plate are his legs on the bases. There, via good reads and probably his best present tool, his foot speed, making him a threat to steal every time he’s on. His quickness, good route running stemming from a good first step to the ball and solid throwing arm give him eligibility at all three defensive outfield spots but his future will probably be made in centerfield.
Above all, Miller is the epitome of a guy who takes what he is given whether it be a walk, an infield single, a bunt hit or a stolen base, making him the perfect leadoff or two hole hitter. He’s a guy who is clearly valued in that capacity by the organization and rightfully so. Flying through the minors, with another good showing, Miller could get a look at AA by season’s end.
2017 – A-A+ – .370/.471/.667, 6 XBH, 8/5 K/BB
Dunand, the nephew of Alex Rodriguez. is a second round pick from last season out of NC State University. A Miami native, Dunand began garnering national attention in 2014 when he homered in eight straight at bats in a national tournament in Arizona.
Dunand parlayed that performance into a solid three year collegiate career with the Wolfpack. Appearing in 178 of a possible 180 games, Dunand hit a collective .268/.334/.476 with 29 homers and 75 XBHs. Most of his success came during a .287/.368/.632 junior season in which he went yard 18 times, fourth most in the conference. His even 1.000 OPS ranked eighth in the ACC.
Dunand rode that performance all the way up the draft board, going from a presumed late round pick at the start of 2016 to a seventh round selection in 2017. Upon joining the professional ranks, he had an intriguing first eight games in Jupiter between the backfields in the GCL and at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium with the Hammerheads (small sample aside) hitting 370/.471/.667. He flashed what is believed to be his best tool, plus raw power by collecting six XBHs, including his first professional homer. Judging by those numbers, the transition from metal to wood bats won’t be a problem for this kid.
Watching him in camp, the righty hitter who gets low in a straight away stance impresses with his straight up the middle power. In a game I watched, Dunand went to the same exact area of the field twice against different pitchers with line drive hits, showing good repeatability in his approach and timing. The biggest and possibly only knock on Dunand’s approach is that he looks like a prototypical low ball hitter who can struggle against quality pitches on the upper half which has led to his high K totals. Better plate coverage will be paramount in how far he can go. Outside of that though, Dunand projects as a solid extra base hit threat who also hits for average and can play multiple infield positions including up the middle at short and second base. Should he improve his selectiveness and show the ability to walk more as he grows physically, he will be a highly prized commodity as a major leaguer. Place the ceiling here somewhere around Brandon Phillips, a career .275/.320/.421 hitter with the same quickness, instincts and hands in the field to match a career 9.5 dWAR.
Nelson is the Marlins’ 15th round draft pick from 2016 out of Cisco Junior College. The 20-year-old spent just one season there before signing with the Marlins upon his second draft selection. His single season in juco was paramount in his adding muscle and improving his power game. After hitting a total of just four homers in his junior and senior years of high school combined, Nelson exploded for 17, allowing him to climb up draft boards nearly 100 picks from 531st overall in 2015 to 443rd and garner a $75,000 signing bonus. He ended his 2016 campaign by hitting .284/.344/.364 in his first 162 pro ABs in the GCL.
Last year in Greensboro, Nelson showed off an MVP-type skillset. Appearing in 102 of the Grasshoppers 136 games, Nelson hit .309/.354/.456. His BA brought him within one point of the South Atlantic League’s batting title, his OBP placed seventh and his .810 OPS sixth. His 31 doubles also ranked sixth. When measured by runs created (wRC+), Nelson was 32 runs better than the league average player. All the while, Nelson accomplished all of this despite being nearly three years younger than the Sally league’s average player. Much like his huge junior year in college, Nelson’s huge 2016 has garnered him a ton of attention from scouts. According to MLB Pipeline, he heads into 2018 as the 16th best prospect in the newly rebuilt Marlins’ system.
Swinging from a low straight stance, Nelson engages from a big front foot trigger into a quick and well leveraged swing. Approaching from the back of the batters box, Nelson flashes the ability to wait out the break on pitches and a good step into the ball, allowing him to go to all fields. There isn’t much in the way of load or power transfer from the lower body. Rather, Nelson relies on bat speed, raw strength and speed to produce his XBHs, which last year were fairly limited to line drive doubles. Nelson’s upper body mechanics are solid. He maintains a stationary head and keeps two hands on the bat all the way through the zone, ensuring his plus contact rates. Nelson advantageously looks the ball off his bat and follows it into the field, allowing him to make a good first read on the basepaths where he shows above average jets.
Areas of concern for Nelson are few and far between. One of those few is his patience. As good as his barrel path to the ball, full body extension and plate coverage abilities are, Nelson has a habit to press on pitches outside of the zone when down in the count and a susceptibility to allowing his top half to fly open a bit. Nelson will need to gain the ability to take more pitches, get ahead and work counts if he is to maintain a solid average and OBP at the upper levels and beyond. This fact isn’t lost on him.
“The biggest thing is not wasting at bats, bearing down and getting the job done with runners on or not,” Nelson told me last year. “If they are gonna give me a walk, I gotta take it and not press.”
Another area of concern for Nelson was his lack of home run power during his 2017 campaign as he hit just seven. While his ability to find holes and gaps shouldn’t be discounted, if he hopes to stick as a third baseman, that total as well as his 2.05 ground out to air out ratio will need to improve.
Speaking of his future at third, Nelson’s fielding error total of 19 will also need refinement. Though he shows off a 60-grade throwing arm, he sometimes rushes his feeds. He’s also still learning how to make the most advantageous reads off the bat.
Just 19, there’s plenty of time for Nelson, a traditional shortstop, to close those gaps in his game. However, he will lose a bit of that time to injury at the start of this season. At the beginning of camp, Nelson suffered a meniscus injury that required surgery. With no past history, Nelson says it came out of nowhere. However, despite the tough luck, he plans to come back no worse for the wear.
“It just kind of happened. It’s weird because I didn’t feel anything last year,” Nelson said. “I’ll probably be out a month, but I’ll be fine.”
What hurts most about the injury isn’t necessarily the longevity or seriousness of it but rather the timing. Due to the surgery, he missed the opportunity to reap the benefits of the tutelage big league coaches such as infield guru Perry Hill, the chance to get some work in against big league talent and begin to adjust to his slightly bigger body (he put on 20 pounds of mass in the offseason) and new home park Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium. Instead, all of that will be need to be done on the fly during regular season action by a kid who will once again be the youngest player on his team.
If he doesn’t lose a step, if the solid average persists and he is able to add some launch to his swing, get his lower half more involved in his approach and find more consistent over-the-fence power and if he can he can take the next step in his development as a defender, Nelson could get a look in AA at the end of the year. With a good gap-to-gap foundational make up, a great baseball IQ and fantastic athleticism, it’s definitely within the realm of possibility. However, there shouldn’t be any pressure on him to make that jump. Still in his teenage years, there’s plenty of time for Nelson to reach his potential as a 20/20/20 type offensive weapon with at least average all-around defensive skills. Although he faces a tough test this year, he will be one of the most intriguing pieces to watch within the entire organization.
2017 – A-A+ – 117.2 IP, 2.75 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 3.63 K/BB
Acquired by the Marlins in the offseason trade for Dee Gordon, Dugger was an 18th round draft pick by the Mariners out of Texas Tech University. In a single season out of the Red Raiders bullpen, Dugger appeared in 30 games and held down a 2.67 ERA via a 1.4 WHIP, 8.01 K/9 and 2.35 K/BB in 60.2 IP. After his collegiate career, the Mariners tried to transition Dugger to the starting rotation. Since that time in 2016, he’s been a project in progress. His most convincing work was done this past season as he started the year in low A and held down a 1.18 ERA as a starter via a .199 BAA and 46/9 K/BB before being called up to A+ where he had a 3.94 ERA in the same amount of innings via a 47/16 K/BB and .272 BAA.
Dugger returns to A+ this year with the Hammerheads in his age 23 season. A decently sized 6’2”, 180, Dugger delivers from a step-back delivery, a high leg kick and a low 3/4 slot. There’s quickness and deception in his delivery that he also maintains out of the stretch but there is a bit of effort in it leading to some doubt as to his ability to hold up during a season’s worth of starts. His heat which shows a bit of life tops out at 93 but his bread and butter pitch is a good power slider at 91 which he spots very well on his outer half. While his command can be spotty at times, he rarely misses up in the zone. He has a good feel for his craft as a weak contact inducing hurler. That said, Dugger doesn’t have much more of an arsenal outside of the beginnings of a changeup that lacks shape. He started throwing a curveball in college but has since abandoned it in favor of his quality slide piece. If he’s going to stick as a starter, Dugger will need to further develop the changeup. That’ll be the focus going into this season but at this point, at 24, he projects better as a pen arm with swing man potential.
Perez is a 23-year old righty out of Missouri State University drafted by the Marlins in the fifth round of 2016. After recording a 4.50 ERA and a 26/8 K/BB in his first 34 innings that spanned his freshman and sophomore seasons, Perez enjoyed effective junior and senior campaigns solely out of the Missouri State bullpen, holding down a collective 3.06 ERA over 159 IP. He allowed just 156 baserunners over that same span, giving him a lowly 0.98 WHIP. What stood out even more over that 63 game span were Perez’s swing and miss numbers as he posted a 3.41 K/BB. The lasting impression he left on scouts in his senior year was a 112/35 K/BB and a ridiculous 11.04 K rate. Combined with a sub-3 (2.86) ERA and 1.09 WHIP that season, he climbed up into the top five rounds on draft boards. That’s exactly where the Marlins got him at 143rd overall. Perez received a $20,000 signing bonus.
Upon his arrival in the professional ranks, the Marlins nearly immediately began transitioning Perez to the starting rotation. After coming out of the pen in eight of his first nine outings, Perez made seven straight starts to end his 2016 season. He responded pretty well, holding down a 3.72 ERA via a 1.38 WHIP and a 20/11 K/BB over 29 innings.
In 2017, Perez began the year tossing out of the pen for the Grasshoppers. The exports were similar from a control standpoint as he collected 30 Ks to just six walks but the immaturity of his breaking arsenal cost him to give up seven homers in just 33 innings pitched. As a result, he was sent back to Batavia at the beginning of the short season.
Despite his overall ineffectiveness in relief in Greensboro, the Marlins showed confidence in Perez’s ability by maintaining their commitment to making him a full-time starter. In 14 starts for the Muckdogs that year, Perez rewarded that confidence by flashing his best overall stuff yet, tossing to the tune of a 2.21 ERA via a 1.09 WHIP in 77 innings. He also showed excellent control numbers, walking less than two per nine innings (1.51) while striking out six per nine.
The Marlins are hoping the bit of adversity is just what Perez needed to adjust to life at the upper levels. He will begin that life this year as he begins the season in single A advanced. A 6’3”, 210 specimen, Perez lives off a fastball that sits in the 92-95 mph range. In his second stint with the Muckdogs, Perez spent a lot of time developing his secondary pitches. Both offerings, a slider and a changeup sit in the 85-88 mph range and even with the steps they’ve made are still just average. As good as Perez has shown he can be against younger talent, he has had equally as tough a problem doing it with consistency. These issues stem from a crux in his ability to repeat his delivery and maintain velo after more than a few innings. Though he will get yet another and quite possibly a last chance to show he can succeed as a starter at the highest level he’s ever pitched at, the soon to be 24-year-old’s long term future is probably going to come as a bullpen arm. That said, he could still make a decent living as a 1-2 inning middle reliever.
Clark is a 23-year-old righty who has had quite a traveling baseball career. After being born in Oklahoma City, Clark graduated from Greenwood High School in Greenwood, Arkansas before attending college at Crowder Junior College in Missouri. On the last of those stops, Clark had a 4.58 ERA in 107.1 IP by way of a 1.58 WHIP. His most impressive JuCo stat was a great K/BB metric of 100/43. That stat made possible by way of his gargantuan physicality was Clark’s meal ticket to being drafted by the Rays in round 15 of the 2015 draft and to garnering a $127.5K signing bonus.
After finishing out his 2015 campaign by getting a taste of short season ball, Clark returned to the Princeton Rays in 2016 and began showing the Tampa organization his true potential. In 12 games, nine of which were starts, Clark held down a 2.91 ERA via a 1.06 WHIP in 56.2 innings. His solid swing and miss numbers also persisted as he collected 44 Ks to just 15 walks. What was most impressive about Clark’s 2016 campaign was his ability to rise to the occasion. His 7.21 hits per nine was the lowest he’d allowed in his baseball career.
In 2017, Clark received the call to the Bowling Green Hot Rods, Tampa’s single A squad. Once again, facing the most grueling season of his career, Clark once again showed a great ability to successfully adjust to a new level by holding down a 3.11 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in his first 12 games and 58 IP. His stuff took yet another step forward over that span as he only allowed two homers (0.33 HR/9) and he struck out 50 giving him a 8.18 K/9. Those metrics attracted Clark to the Marlins who acquired him in the trade that sent Adeiny Hechavarria to the Rays. Clark, showing poise well beyond his 22 years, was nearly unphased by the trade. In 11 appearances (all starts) and 52.2 IP for Greensboro, Clark limited damage to the tune of a 7.01 H/9 and a 0.68 HR/9, leading to a 1.07 WHIP. His solid whiff counts also persisted as he posted a 9.74 K/9. All in all, despite relocation and by far the highest innings count of his career all while being converted to a full time starter, Clark held down a collective 2.59 ERA, a 1.13 WHIP, 6.52 H/9 and a 107/44 K/BB.
Clark’s ability to adapt to his surroundings including a higher inning count and promotion in competition level has lain in his ability to continue to make the most of his god-given attributes while also advantageously developing his craft while having the presence of mind to not try to do too much. A massive 6’8”, 240 pound specimen, Clark doesn’t overpower with velocity but what he lacks in that department he makes up for with his ability to deceive. Maintaining a slow and methodical pace, Clark kicks his front leg high before following through from a high 3/4 slot. His arsenal consists of a 92 MPH fastball, an 86 MPH changeup and his best pitch, an 84 MPH slider. Where Clark succeeds most in limiting damage and generating swings and misses is in his ability to plane all of his pitches down into the lower half of the zone, keeping hitters nearly blind to the eventual location of his stuff and getting them to swing over it. This offsets his lack of velo mix and makes him a low effort guy capable of effectively eating innings. A guy who looks like he’s simply playing catch out there, Clark’s slow pace, his incredibly smooth mechanics and good body control allow him to repeat his delivery well. Combined with a good working knowledge of the strike zone and a solid three pitch repertoire, Clark has a good professional history, adapting to whatever level and situation he’s pitching in. At 6’8”, he would be the tallest pitcher to start a game in Marlins’ franchise history and the third tallest to appear in a game, a future that doesn’t seem too far away.
.247/.341/.639, 65 HR, 336 XBH, 2.56 K/BB, 86 SB, 37 CS (70%)
2.68 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 3.57 K/BB
Woah, it’s Nelly! Not only is it befittingly his Twitter handle, it’s the exact phrase the South Atlantic League, its scouts, the Marlins’ organization and anyone who follows it are exclaiming regarding James Nelson’s season to date. One look at the stats including his absolutely unprecedented month of May, it’s easy to see why.
Nelson was born on October 18, 1997 in Rex, GA and attended Redan High School in nearby Stone Mountain. Other than the budding Nelson, Redan is famous for producing MLB talents such as Wally Joyner and Brandon Phillips. As Nelson relates to, Redan is a place that is very proud of that past and their long-tenured heritage and Raiders players, including Nelson, coaches and parents quickly learn that. Rahter than just being part of for four years, they are part of a brotherhood forever.
“Baseball tradition at Redan is probably the best I’ve ever been a part of,” Nelson said. “It was all about winning and being a part of a family.”
After his graduation in 2015, Nelson was selected by the Red Sox in the 18th round of that year’s Draft. However, Nelson forwent signing with Boston to attend junior college in Cisco, Texas in an attempt to raise his draft stock.
“Going to Junior college was probably the biggest and best decision I could’ve made to be honest,” Nelson said. “I don’t think I got enough exposure in high school as far as seeing the pitchers I did.”
Despite his great high school tenure, Nelson only hit four total home runs in his junior and senior seasons. In his one year at Cisco, a bulked up Nelson hit 17. After going off the board 531st overall a year prior, some scouts had Nelson going off the board as early as round 12. The Marlins selected Nelson with the 443rd overall pick in round 15 thus making his decision to attend Cisco a success. This time, Nelson forwent the rest of his college career to sign a pro contract at the age of 19, another big choice and another one he and his family does not regret.
“Baseball is what I loved to do and I believed I was ready to take on the next level,” Nelson said. “My family was proud. Everyone thinks it was a great decision and I get all the support I need.”
Upon his arrival in the professional ranks last season, Nelson supported evidence that he was indeed ready to make the jump. In 43 games in the Gulf Coast League, he hit .284/.344/.364. His BA ranked 15th in the league and his OBP ranked 20th. Among his impressive countable stats were 24 RBI and a 7/3 SB/CS. Despite appearing at the plate just 162 times, the Marlins were impressed enough to promote Nelson to full season ball at the ripe age of 19, 2 1/2 years younger than the average Sally League player. After a bit of a feeling out process in his first eight games in April when he hit .207/.324/.345, Nelson absolutely exploded in May, responding and rewarding the Marlins’ vote of confidence by becoming one of the best hitters in the league and a sure-fire choice for the upcoming All-Star Game. His ridiculous month of May consisted of a .372/.425/.540 slash line along with 8 doubles, a triple, 3 homers, 17 RBI and a 5/1 SB/CS. Overall this season, Nelson’s .338 BA ranks third in the Sally, his .404 OBP ranks fourth and his .500 SLG ranks ninth. He ends the month of May riding a 17-game hitting streak.
So how has this teenager with just a year’s worth of college experience and 43 games worth of pro experience under his belt, responded so well to playing against the best competition that he ever has gone up against while being under the pressure and microscope that goes along with being regarded as the club’s 10th best prospect and how will he keep it up over the course of a 140 game season, three times as many games as he’s ever played in in a single year? Simple: he won’t change a thing and most importantly, he will not get too far ahead of himself. Because after all, whatever level you’re at and wherever you are or aren’t ranked within the organization, the game remains the same.
“It’s baseball, man. I’m just taking it day by day, making sure I’m staying healthy and staying on top of my game,” Nelson said. “I just take it one at bat at a time. If I don’t get it done one at bat, just get it done the next, and also keeping my routine I’ve been doing is a major deal as well. It’s all about playing baseball, it’s the same game, just with better competition. The biggest thing is focus, if you don’t focus you won’t succeed how you want to.”
If there was a knock on Nelson’s offensive game from his days in the GCL it was his production against lefties which he hit at just a .231/.286/.269 clip. This season, again, against much more advanced competition, he has remedied that by hitting southpaws at a .388/.492/.694 pace. Once again, Nelson credits what he believes is the end-all, be all, vision. After that, it has been his ability to stay inside the ball a lot more consistently that has made the difference.
“All about the focus,” Nelson said “From last year to this year, I think my middle-oppo approach has gotten a lot better and I am actually driving the ball to right field and I think that was a big advantage against lefties, especially this season”
Nelson has accomplished all of these offensive accolades over the past two years while also learning how to play a new position, third base, where the Marlins believe his growing frame, plus power and strong arm will be better suited in the long run. While learning the hot corner has been and will continue to be a process for Nelson, he doesn’t mind; as long as he’s on the diamond.
“I took the news [of the switch] great. If they see me playing there in the future then I’d be happy to be there,” Nelson said. “Any way I could help the team. I love shortstop, but as long as I am on the field, I’d play catcher.”
Nelson’s at-bats are a sight to behold. After the 6’2″ specimen stares down his opposition from a straight vertical stance, he times his swing with a front leg trigger that is less reminiscent of a batter and more so of a pitcher. From there, there’s only one word to describe him: explosive. Stretching his arms all the way back for as much power as possible while somehow maintaining extremely good balance and very rarely, if ever, falling off to either side of the plate, Nelson’s bat is barely recognizable as it whips through the zone with uppercut action. After exhibiting some of the best bat speed within the organization, he stays through the ball with two hands on the bat and two eyes down all the way and looks the ball off the barrel, keeping him from pulling off. Mechanically, everything looks close to perfect for the still-maturing Nelson, making him a near lock to become a 20+ home run hitter. While on base which Nelson has been a ton this season, he has more than above average speed, especially for a guy his size. Add to that the ability make great reads and you have the acumen of a 20+ base stealer. As a GCLer in 2015, he stole seven bags and was caught three times. In less games this year, he has already swiped five while being caught just once.
If there has been one consistently below-average area of Nelson’s offensive game throughout his career it’s been his ability to walk, common for any power-first hitter but not an area which Nelson is willing to go to the wolves. He has proven that by walking more in less ABs this season compared to last season and which he hopes to improve even further by advancing and utilizing his plate vision, no matter the situation.
“The biggest thing is not wasting at bats, bearing down and getting the job done with runners on or not,” Nelson said. “If they are gonna give me a walk, I gotta take it and not press.”
Nelson will be the first one to admit he is far from a finished product and he has work to do. However, the 19-year-old who will not even turn 20 for another two months, defines the word ‘athlete’, has a baseball IQ well beyond his years, and is already on the verge of a call-up to A+. With 20/20 club type talent, the ability to hit for both average and power and great fielding instincts, footwork and hands, he is a 5-tool type talent that could arrive in the majors as early as 2019. But for now, the extremely modest and level-headed Nelson ins’t worried about that.
“Baseball is a crazy sport man,” Nelson said. “I’m just trying to trust the process, so I’m just doing me.”
Keep doing you, James. If baseball is crazy, you’ve found the remedy.