Jimmy Nelson, SP - MIL
Few things have gone right this year for the Brewers, who fired their manager over the weekend after an MLB-worst 7-18 start. One bright spot, however, has been the early performance of Nelson, who slotted in as Milwaukee's fifth starter but has been the rotation's best performer over the first month of the season.
Nelson profiled as a solid sleeper candidate coming off a rookie campaign where his peripherals substantially outshined his overall results; despite a 2-9 record and 4.93 ERA in 69 innings, the righty was able to miss some bats while limiting walks and homers -- key staples of success.
All of those skills have been in play over the first four weeks for Nelson, who has put up a 24-to-11 K/BB ratio with only one homer allowed over 29 innings in five starts. His 4.03 ERA is a bit bloated as a result of one really bad outing in Cincinnati where he allowed seven runs in 2 1/3 innings, but outside of that Nelson has surrendered only six runs on 17 hits and six walks in 26 2/3 frames.
In the past, there has been some concern about the 25-year-old's long-term outlook as a starter because he lacked a quality third pitch behind his fastball and slider, but this year he has added a spike curveball to his repertoire. He has featured the pitch heavily (about 25 percent of all offerings) and thus far it has helped him to push his ground ball rate above 50 percent while also registering a career-high swinging strike rate (11.4 percent).
Those are the types of underlying trends you like to see for a young pitcher. Nelson is a good arm on an upward trajectory.
Trevor May, SP - MIN
May's major-league debut last year was a nightmare. Called up to start in Oakland in August after a resoundingly successful campaign at Triple-A, May issued seven walks in two innings of work, throwing just 28 of 63 pitches for strikes. It was a mess.
The right-hander settled down after the horrendous start, but still finished with a brutal 7.88 ERA in 10 appearances (nine starts). However, when you looked at his strikeout-to-walk ratio after that first start (44/15 in 43 innings) and his fine work in the minors prior to being called up (8-6 with a 2.85 ERA at Class-AAA Rochester), it was clear that May had more to offer than his shoddy core numbers suggested.
He narrowly missed a spot in the Minnesota rotation coming out of spring training this year, but it didn't take long for May to return to the majors, replacing injured Ricky Nolasco in the rotation in mid-April. Now that he's back in the bigs, May is showing the same abilities that established him as an intriguing fantasy sleeper.
Through 20 innings across four starts, he has struck out 17 and walked only three, with just one homer allowed. That still has equated to 4.43 ERA, thanks mainly to a .353 BABIP, but if the righty can continue to post those types of peripherals, he's going to have plenty more success in store.
During his career in the minors, May averaged 10.5 K/9, and he has a strong arsenal of pitches, so the high strikeout volume seems legit. Whether he'll be able to keep the walks in check is the big question, but signs are promising; he has handed out only 18 walks in 44 innings since his infamously erratic debut.