Ryne Nelson, flamethrowing reliever for the University of Oregon Ducks, was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the second round last month.
Today, he's on the roster of the Hillsboro Hops, the Diamondbacks' minor league affiliate in the Northwest League. His home ballpark, Ron Tonkin Field in Hillsboro, is about two hours north of his old stomping grounds in Eugene (home of the Emeralds, who happen to be the Hops' bitterest rivals).
Nelson is a very intriguing prospect. The 6-foot-3, 185-pounder has the pitch repertoire and stamina to start, but he also has the velocity and the clutch gene to close games, as he frequently did for the Ducks.
Especially with the recent importance MLB has placed on relievers and the fact that top relievers are no longer limited to just the ninth inning, managers are starting to use their best arms earlier in games to bridge the gap and limit scoring chances. The Diamondbacks could be tempted to use Nelson as a multi-inning reliever who can reach the high 90s in mph with his fastball.
Other new philosophies, such as limiting how often the starter faces the opposing lineup and using an "opener" to get the first three outs of a game have made relievers even more crucial.
For now, however, Arizona plans to develop Nelson as a starter, using the bullpen as an enticing backup plan.
"His value is going to be in starting," Hillsboro pitching coach Barry Enright said. "There's trends in baseball that kind of go every five, 10 years. By the time he's up there, you never know, maybe it still is the reliever's game. Or maybe we're back to starters going seven innings."
Nelson made his professional debut against the Boise Hawks on July 13, firing 16 pitches — 15 of them fastballs.
Although that looked one-dimensional, the Hops believe their right-hander from has the ability to do a lot more.
"He's got five pitches, and in one inning, you can't throw them all," Hillsboro pitching coach Barry Enright said. "He's going to be pretty special as we get him built up and get some innings under his belt."
Enright said he thinks Nelson's ability to throw more than just the fastball and curveball he used at Oregon could make him a deadly starting pitcher. Enright identified five pitches that Nelson could develop into major league-caliber.
"I think Oregon didn't really let him throw (his pitch arsenal) all the time," Enright said. "We're going to see how those develop here."
On June 3, amateur baseball players tuned into MLB Network and MLB.com, hoping to hear their name called in the draft.
Nelson, who was watching the draft on TV with his friends and family, waited through 55 picks.
The native of Henderson, Nevada, was thrilled when the Diamondbacks selected him 56th.
"It was something I always wanted and dreamed of," Nelson said. "It was pretty crazy to have it come to reality."
Although it was hard to contain his excitement, he couldn't help but tease his family. His father, Ryan, is a Los Angeles Angels fan. Nelson noticed the Angels had the 55th pick. Rather than quickly tell everyone he was a Diamondback, he let his dad's imagination run wild.
"I was kind of playing games with him," Nelson said. "I was making him think I was going to be an Angel for a minute. I kept it a secret from everybody until they called me on the board."
Nelson, a former two-way player, was the starting shortstop for the Ducks in 2018, hitting .171 in 53 games. Although he was happy to give up the bat, the former infielder said he will miss the field.
The competitive drive and athleticism needed to play both pitcher and shortstop collegiately was easy to see when he played. For example, in an April 6, 2018, doubleheader against Washington State, Nelson started at shortstop in both games and pitched in both ninth innings, earning two saves and repeatedly touching 99 mph.
"I just like to be in the game and compete," Nelson said. "I don't like sitting by and watching other people do it. I'd rather get out there and do it myself."
Regardless of what role Nelson assumes now, he has some stiff competition, and friends, to accompany him along the way. Arizona drafted college pitchers Drey Jameson (Ball State), Tommy Henry (Michigan) and Andrew Saalfrank (Indiana) in the top six rounds. All three are now with the Hops.
Nelson, Jameson and Saalfrank were promoted to Hillsboro together on July 4 after meeting in Arizona with the Arizona League Diamondbacks. Henry arrived later, making his professional debut against the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes last Tuesday, July 23.
Even though the four will be competing for roster spots in the near future, they have become close friends.
"Ryne's a good dude," said Jameson, Nelson's roommate. "I met a lot of the draft guys, but we clicked really well."
Nelson also knows Henry from when the two pitched for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox of the Cape Cod League in 2018.
Nelson is used to friendly competition. Two former pitchers at Oregon have had big impacts on his career: 2017 first-round pick of the New York Mets David Peterson and 2018 Diamondbacks fifth-round pick Matt Mercer, who pitched for the Hops last year.
Before his own move to Hillsboro, Nelson hung out with Mercer, who is currently with the High-A Visalia Rawhide, two levels above Hillsboro.
"He's been a really good asset for me to reach out to with questions," Nelson said. "He'll always answer them. He's one of my good friends, for sure."
The Arizona organization seems like the perfect fit for Nelson. Their Triple-A team, the Reno Aces, are seven hours from his hometown. The Diamondbacks' home ballpark, Chase Field, is not much more than four hours away.
"Playing in Nevada would be awesome," Nelson said. "Arizona's not too far away, either. I have some good options ahead."
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