Trey Nielsen's professional career with the St. Louis Cardinals organization had almost ended before it began.
That was before his father Scott, an ex-big-leaguer and his representation jumped in and persuaded the Cardinals to reworking his contract around a possible Tommy John surgery to repair a slight tear in his UCL. The younger Nielsen and the Cardinals eventually settled on a deal that would place his signing bonus in custody of the latter until the former was healthy.
The 30th round selection from the University of Utah wound up undergoing surgery shortly after failing his physical and officially became a Cardinal on July 11, 2013 – that year’s signing deadline for draftees.
Nielsen, a two-way player at Utah, started 56 games in the field as a sophomore, 52 at third base, and 42 games his junior season. Despite throwing just six innings his junior year, the Cardinals drafted him as a right-handed pitcher, advocating his raw arm strength and infielder athleticism to project the pitcher he might become.
11 months after successful elbow surgery, Nielsen was eased into action, pitching less than five innings in all but one of his outings with Low-A (short-season) State College Spikes. He posted an impressive 49-14 strikeout to walk ratio and had a 2.50 ERA over 50 1/3 innings as a starter and reliever in 2014.
Nielsen proved his health and flashed durability in tackling down his first full season as a professional pitcher last year. He recorded nine wins and pitched to a 2.59 ERA in 111 innings over 25 games (18 starts) with High-A Palm Beach in 2015. In nine of his 18 starts, Nielsen went six or more innings - impressive given his lack of experience. His late-season move to the bullpen was attributed to a set innings limit that was burnt up by the end of July.
As a result of a terrific showing in his first taste of full-season ball, Nielsen was ranked as The Cardinal Nation's 28th prospect this past winter. There is skepticism regarding his secondary offerings, but the groundball pitcher has received plus grades (60 on the 20-80 scouting scale) for his fastball that tops 95 mph and features heavy sink down in the zone.
"Generally, my ball doesn't have drastic movement," he told MiLB.com last May, "but it does have late break. I've got some late arm-side run on my two-seamer. Normally, I use a straight four-seamer and a late-moving two-seamer.”
In perhaps what will be his biggest year yet, Nielsen started off slowly in Double-A, with a 5.95 ERA in four starts (19 2/3 innings) for April. However, his performance has improved radically in May, with just two earned runs allowed in 21 innings (three starts), including his first career complete-game on Friday night against NW Arkansas. Nielsen has a minuscule 0.86 ERA this month.
In the following exclusive interview, Nielsen outlines his 2015 season, his first experience of big-league spring training, the issue with his control, and talks more on his pitch offerings.
Derek Shore: You split time between starting and relieving for Palm Beach last year. How would you characterize your 2015 season?
Trey Nielsen: "It was a fun season. I learned a whole lot about the ins and outs of pitching. It was my first full season and my second pitching. There were some ups and downs, but thankfully there more ups than downs. I got to experience both sides of pitching - both out of relief and starting.
"I was able to develop a routine for both - figure different mentalities out within each role. It was very educational and very positive experience."
DS: You appeared in two games with St. Louis this spring. What was it like pitching on that stage?
TN: "It was great. The experience alone was awesome - just being around the guys and the atmosphere is a lot of fun. You go to spring training, we at the minor league level aren't used to any fans. Then you go out there in front of 7,000-8,000 fans at a time with those great guys in the St. Louis clubhouse is just a very, very fun experience.
DS: What can you take away from that experience as a non-roster invitee to big-league camp?
TN: "Just the way to go about the game and how to handle yourself; take accountability for yourself. They are professionals up there and that was the biggest thing I learned; how to truly be a professional and have fun at the same time."
DS: Your 2016 season started off a bit shaky, but you seem to have settled in with each outing. How has the competition differed from the Florida State League to the Texas League?
TN: "The hitters are a little more polished. They play at a higher level. There are more polished hitters and they make you make more adjustments at this level than High-A. There have been adjustments along the way for myself, but being able to read hitters and adjust per at-bat has been different this year just because the hitters are so polished.
"The adjustments alone are a little more challenging, but that's what this job is - a game of adjustments - and you learn to make them."
DS: What can you tell me about your offerings? What do you consider to be your go-to pitches?
TN: "Generally, sinker-changeup. I've generally been a pitcher that is able to control the zone. I pride myself on that - being able to change speeds and throw hitters’ timing off with a different mix of the changeup and sinker. Really, a control pitcher with the ability to keep hitters off balance."
DS: While you are primarily a groundball pitcher without overpowering stuff, how vital is location for you?
TN: "It's huge. Location and execution of the pitches is what ultimately brings success. Being able to locate and control the zone, it gets you more calls than it won't. You get that umpire on your side and make him want to call strikes, it definitely helps out, but it also opens up at-bats and opens up other pitches for me to use in that at-bat."
DS: At times, location seems to have been an issue for you this year. What do you do to find the strike zone more consistently?
TN: "It was fairly an issue at the beginning, not so much lately. I've already made those adjustments, and my ball was up. I was in the strike zone, but my ball was up. So, that was the issue; it wasn't a matter of being in-or-out. It was elevating my pitches.
"So, just working my ball down and consistently keeping everything down. Like I said, changing speeds on the hitter and throwing their timing off is huge. As long as that ball is down, everything will work out."
DS: As far as goals for the season, do you have any?
TN: "Come in every day and work to get better. That's really about it. I can't control where I'll be come August or September; next month or in a couple of days. You never know. So come in, put in the effort every day and hope for the best.
"Obviously, my ultimate goal is the big leagues. Whenever that happens, or if it doesn't; it doesn't. You just got to come in every day, put in that same effort, and hope for the best."
Follow Derek Shore on Twitter @D_Shore23.
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