Veteran infielder, former first-round Draft pick trying to resurrect career
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The first time infielder Chris Nelson stole a base in the Majors was in 2010 and it was a spectacular moment. It was also a punch in the gut for the Reds.
Nelson was a rookie on Sept. 9, 2010, when he perfectly executed a straight-steal of home in the eighth inning of a series finale against the Reds and reliever Nick Masset. It provided the go-ahead run in a 6-5 Rockies win and sent a demoralized Cincinnati club to its fifth-straight loss in the process.
"It was just an exciting play for me, something I will never forget," Nelson said. "Fans still come up to me about it. Just yesterday as a matter of fact, someone said 'I was there when you stole home.' It was a memorable moment."
Nelson, who was the Rockies' first-round pick in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft, seemed poised for a fruitful tenure in Colorado. In 2011, he hit his first two Major League home runs on consecutive days -- June 17-18 vs. the Tigers.
In 2012, Nelson was the Rockies' Opening Day third baseman and batted .301 with nine home runs, 53 RBIs and a .352 on-base percentage. Following a brief disabled list stint for an irregular heartbeat, his .345 average after Aug. 1 led all Major League third basemen -- including Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera.
By 2013, Nelson had trouble sticking not only in the Majors--- but with a club. He got off to slow start as rookie third baseman Nolan Arenado came on strong and took the job permanently. Colorado designated Nelson for assignment before trading him to the Yankees. Two weeks later, he was claimed off of waivers by the Angels, where he spent the rest of the season as a bench player.
Overall, Nelson batted .221 in 43 big league games. He also missed a stretch of 19 games in August and September with a right hamstring strain. He could not explain how things fell so quickly.
"I really don't have an answer for you. It was just a bad year," Nelson said. "A lot of moving, a lot of traveling."
The Reds signed Nelson to a Minor League contract on Jan. 27, 2014, and invited him to Spring Training as a non-roster player. He is vying for a utility infield job on the bench.
"He's a nice player. I liked him over in Colorado," Reds manager Bryan Price said. "It looked like a couple of years ago, he really figured things and he was playing a lot more with a nice year there. It's so common, unfortunately, these guys figure it out and have a setback whatever it may be and he's kind of become a journeyman guy. I think he's a better player than that."
Nelson, 28, liked the opportunity the Reds could provide as a National League club. He also is friends with second baseman Brandon Phillips as both attended Redan High School in Stone Mountain, Ga., although not at the same time.
"I'm a big fan of his and I've always watched him play," Nelson said. "He's a huge reason why I'm playing baseball now, professionally. Coming to a new club, I know Brandon so it was definitely something where I could go somewhere and talk to somebody."
A lifetime .268/.312/.399 hitter, Nelson has played 177 games in the Majors at third base, 56 games at second base and three games at shortstop. He has played second base and third base for Cincinnati this spring and also some at first base, including on Sunday. Price didn't rule out trying him in left field before camp breaks.
"I've definitely got a lot of opportunities," Nelson said. "I would say I'm most comfortable at third, but as of right now, first base feels good, second base feels good, everything feels good right now. I'm picking it really good."
It's been a solid spring at the plate for Nelson, who is batting .360 (9-for-25) in 17 games. That included his eighth-inning rolling single up the middle on Monday vs. the Indians and later swiping third in a double steal.
Winning a roster spot is far from a lock, however. While Nelson could benefit if backup third baseman Jack Hannahan begins the year on the disabled list while he works his way back from shoulder surgery, the Reds also have infielders Ramon Santiago and Neftali Soto in camp. Santiago is stronger defensively and can play shortstop while Soto is a corner infielder already on the 40-man roster.
"We feel fortunate that he's in camp with us and he provides us with a depth element that will help our club," Price said of Nelson. "I don't know if he'll make our club when we break camp or not, but he's in the mix for sure because he's had such a good camp."
No matter what his role would be, Nelson would just like to be able to find a home with the Reds.
"You would definitely love to have stability," Nelson said. "I don't want to be bouncing around like I did last year. Nobody wants to do that, really. Stability is really the key to having a good season, I think."