How open was the competition for the last bullpen spot? It was so open that the unheralded Nate Jones will start the 2012 season with the White Sox, and if Kenny Williams' confidence isn't overstated, it wasn't even close.
With arguably the lowest profile of anybody on the 40-man roster -- and hell, even some of the non-roster invitees -- Jones outperformed a host of other contenders and ended up on the Opening Day roster after cuts on Saturday. He built his case around swing-and-miss stuff, as he struck out a whopping 17 batters over 10⅔ innings while allowing just two earned runs (1.69 ERA).
There are a couple reality checks -- he allowed two homers and eight walks. Neither of those numbers are characteristic of his minor-league stats, but it's not surprising to see them now. His arm has never been questioned, but his command has held him back. He's been able to refine it enough to depress his walk rates and overwhelm minor-league hitters, but that's only one small step. Major-league hitters will force him to throw good strikes, and so those categories can turn on him if he's not precise enough.
It's going to be interesting to see when and how Robin Ventura will use Jones, because he doesn't fit neatly into any particular role.
He's not a typical mop-up man. Endurance isn't the issue -- he was a starting pitcher in the minors just as recently as 2010, so he can throw multiple innings. But watching Jones this spring, there's such a difference between Good Nate and Bad Nate that he might struggle to close out even one inning when he's off his game.
He has a similar profile to that of one ... Mike MacDougal.
Wait! Don't leave! It's not that bad!
They're both hard-throwers with unorthodox, cross-body deliveries that look like a real pain to maintain. Furthermore, in his last spring with the Sox back in 2009, MacDougal's peripherals were great for him -- 14 innings, 22 strikeouts, seven walks and a 1.36 WHIP.
But then the season started, and the control problems returned. He appeared in five games for the Sox, and in three of them, he couldn't even manage to retire every other batter. He couldn't be trusted to face one batter in a medium-leverage situation, and he couldn't get through two innings quickly enough to bring a lopsided game to a merciful end. The Sox cut him loose in mid-April.
I don't think Jones has anywhere near the baggage that weighed down MacDougal, but he has his own mental hurdles associated with being a rookie, and a rookie without any experience above Double-A to boot. Skipping Charlotte isn't unusual for White Sox relievers (Hector Santiago nods), but Triple-A hitters can sniff out a hittable fastball, regardless of velocity. Throw in the considerably smaller dimensions of Knights Stadium compared to Birmingham, and Charlotte would have been a good test for him. This one is going to be a mite tougher.
Oh, but Jones has upside. We know what guys like Brian Bruney and Dylan Axelrod offer, and it doesn't set the imagination afire. Jones allows some room to dream, because even though we've seen him have easy inings during the spring, we haven't even gotten the full Nate Jones Experience because...
... spring training broadcasts don't have radar gun readings. The Sox haven't had a was-that-pitch-100-mph? guy since Bobby Jenks in 2005, and that's its own kind of fun.
Plus, that he's inconsistent also means he has high times (otherwise, he'd just be terrible). Inertia can be his friend just as often as his enemy. He has a high-90s fastball and a knee-buckling curve, and when he's ahead in the count and hitters don't know what's coming, it's a combination that's nearly impossible to deal with. Some of his innings are going to be a blast.
Jones also has layers of protection. Zach Stewart will probably be the long reliever, and Santiago is a rare third lefty who can 1) retire righties and 2) throw multiple innings. With Addison Reed and Jesse Crain possessing true late-innings stuff from the right side, Jones doesn't really have a whole lot of natural responsibility in this bullpen. Plus, the White Sox rotation is still pretty good. If the starters regularly throw six innings, the overall amount of relief work might be small to begin with.
When pitchers don't have any kind of game situation assigned to them, they can be forgotten for weeks at a time. That might not be a net benefit for Jones' overall development, but he could face as little pressure as anybody who is trying to stick in the big leagues.
And if nothing else, it's always fun to see a guy like Jones get this kind of news:
With Jones joining Santiago in the bullpen, a couple of terrible draft classes are going to look a little better.
The Sox picked up Santiago in the 30th round of the 2006 draft, and he's the only player of that entire class to contribute anything to the White Sox. He's also one of just two players to even make the majors in any capacity (the other was Kanekoa Texeira, the 22nd-round pick). And that's why that was Duane Shaffer's last draft.
The 2007 draft wasn't much better, although they at least developed Aaron Poreda and John Ely enough to be trade bait, for better or for worse. Jones, the fifth-round pick that year, will be just the third player from that year's crop to appear in a major-league game, and he needs just 11⅓ innings to top Poreda's on-field contributions to the Sox. Then again, if things are going well, finding a dozen innings for Jones could take a couple months.