DENVER -- Rockies manager Jim Tracy said this winter he was tired of the heartbreaking conversations he kept having with infielder Chris Nelson informing him that he was being sent to Triple-A Colorado Springs. But think of how Nelson felt each of the three times it happened.This offseason, Nelson's name topped the depth chart at second base for more than two months. But all along Nelson knew he would be pushed downward. He just wants to make sure he won't be shoved off the big league roster again. "After a while, you get tired of going to Jim Tracy's office and getting sent down, him saying, 'Sorry,' and all this other kind of stuff," Nelson said. "This year, I'm going to make sure that doesn't happen." Nelson, 26, who had a brief stint as the starting second baseman last season before the Rockies traded with the Athletics for Mark Ellis, can put himself in line for semi-regular starts at second base and third base this season. Newly acquired second baseman Marco Scutaro is 36 years old. Not only will he need to be rested, but he is the top candidate to move to shortstop on days Troy Tulowitzki rests. New third baseman Casey Blake is 38 and also will need to be rested. Nelson can play each of those positions. Not only that, but this is a once-and-for-all chance for the Rockies to find out what they have in Nelson, their No. 1 pick in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft. After a long and injury-filled climb to the Majors, Nelson is out of Minor League options. To send him down, the Rockies would have to expose him to other clubs through waivers. The chance to make the team out of Spring Training won't be simply handed to Nelson. Jonathan Herrera, who beat out Nelson for a spot last spring, and non-roster candidates Brendan Harris and Brandon Wood, bring multiple seasons of Major League experience to the competition.
Also in the running for a roster spot: Jordan Pacheco, who showed the Rockies hitting potential late last season, and can play third, first and catcher; DJ LeMahieu, who appeared in 37 games with the Cubs last year and arrived in a trade; and Tommy Field, who saw action at shortstop late last season. There's also Eric Young Jr., who played mostly outfield last season but worked at second base during a brief stint in Venezuela this winter.Tracy said Nelson is part of a group that could end up making a difference. "He has to realize that if we're going to be good, there are a lot of players who are going to have to make a significant contribution to our club," Tracy said. "We have to put together a ballclub where we're not going to grind on guys to the breaking point. "It's not just Chris. There are several players who have to realize that the opportunity is there for them right now. What they do with it is up to them." Nelson hit .250 with four home runs and 16 RBIs in 63 games, including 39 starts last season. Many of the starts occurred between May 30, his first promotion, and June 30, before he was sent down to make room for Ellis. Nelson was recalled in late July to play mostly third base, then had another brief demotion before returning in September. Also, Nelson missed time with a left heel injury before coming up in September and was not 100 percent at the end of the season. Nelson, who was drafted as a shortstop and played the position most of his Minor League career, identified plays to his left as a weakness at second base. He is considered above average at third. But how far he goes depends on his bat. Through his first 14 games, the right-handed-hitting Nelson was hitting .318 and had a .340 on-base percentage, pretty much living up to predictions of those who felt his Triple-A numbers were a sign that he could succeed if given an opportunity in the Majors. However, big league pitchers were merely gaining information, and soon Nelson's numbers began to plummet. Tracy had lauded Nelson for his professional approach, but noted to him that he would have to make opponents pay for pitching him inside to be a bona fide Major League hitter. Tracy noted during the season that Nelson's back hip was drifting into pitches and not operating with enough power to handle being jammed. "I got exposed a little bit last year with fastballs in, with me coming up trying to take everything to right field," Nelson said. "Guys are a little smarter and they saw that. They started jamming me, coming in more. This offseason, I just worked on the inside pitch while still staying consistent away. "So I'm just working on my lower half. Jim Tracy stressed that to me going into the offseason. I did that to my best ability. It's just practice on hitting that pitch in there, so it won't happen as often. Every person in Major League Baseball sees himself as hitting .300. It's a matter of being strong mentally and staying healthy on the field."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.