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Deep Dive: right-handed reliever edition, part 4

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Nate Jones: his past, present, and future with the White Sox

MLB: Game One-Chicago White Sox at Minnesota Twins
Staying Power: Nate Jones has been in the Sox organization since 2007. Will he hold on to become part of the next great White Sox team?
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

“Deep Dive” focuses on the depth of each position in the Chicago White Sox organization. The relievers will be written up in five parts:

  1. Depth in the lowest levels (Dominican through Great Falls)
  2. Depth in Class A (Kannapolis and Winston-Salem)
  3. Depth in the highest levels (Birmingham and Charlotte)
  4. Under the Radar-type detail on one of the White Sox players at that position
  5. Free-agent options at that position, plus sneak peeks into available players in the upcoming 2019 MLB draft

This article delves into the career of Nate Jones through 2017, his most recent season with the White Sox, and what his future looks like in the Sox organization.

How did Nate Jones get here?

Jones, a native of Butler, Ky., was essentially the swingman for the Northern Kentucky Norse during his three-year run at the school, from 2005-07. His best year by far, however, was his junior season of 2007, when he posted a 2.88 ERA and 1.33 WHIP in 56 innings, allowing just 37 hits but walking 38 batters compared to 60 punchouts.

Overlooking his control issues, the White Sox selected him in the fifth round of the 2007 MLB draft. After receiving a signing bonus of $127,800, Jones began his professional ball with Rookie League Bristol, but struggled with a 5.13 ERA and 1.54 WHIP. In 2008, he struggled even more at Kannapolis, as he posted a 6.83 ERA and 1.73 WHIP.

Things started picking up for Jones in 2009 with Kannapolis and Winston-Salem, as he finally solved his command issues and began throwing more strikes. After a solid repeat season with the Dash in 2010, Jones had a terrific year in Birmingham in 2011. That year in 63 13 innings, he posted a 3.27 ERA and 1.34 WHIP by allowing just 58 hits (.243 OBA) and 27 walks (9.9%) compared to 67 strikeouts (24.6%).

Jones made his MLB debut on April 8, 2012 and produced quite a solid rookie campaign: In 65 games totaling 71 23 innings, Jones compiled a 2.39 ERA and 1.38 WHIP by relinquishing just 67 hits (.256 OBA) and 32 walks (10.6%) while striking out 65 (21.6%). He followed that up with an even better year in 2013 (if you ignore his ERA) as he posted a 4.15 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in 78 innings, ceding just 69 hits (.247 OBA) and 26 walks (8.3%) while fanning 89 (28.3%). Unfortunately, he pitched in only two games in 2014 due to a muscle strain in his left hip.

Despite missing much of 2015 due to injury, Jones was able to pitch 19 effective innings while compiling a 3.32 ERA and 0.95 WHIP, as he allowed just 12 hits (.188 OBA) and six walks (8.3%) while striking out 27 (37.5%). The 2016 season was Jones’s third injury-free campaign and first since 2013, and he had arguably his best season to date: In 71 outings covering 70 23 innings, he posted a 2.29 ERA and 0.89 WHIP, fanning 80 hitters (29.2%) while allowing only 48 hits (.190 OBA) and 15 walks (5.5%). Unfortunately, Jones missed much of 2017 due to right elbow neuritis, although he did pitch effectively in his mere 11 23 innings of work that year.

Jones with the White Sox in 2018

Jones missed nearly three months (mid-June to mid-September) due to a strain in his right pronator muscle, but still posted respectable results despite a higher-than-average walk rate. He pitched in 33 games totaling 30 innings, and posted a 3.00 ERA and career-high 1.43 WHIP after allowing 28 hits (.239 OBA) and 15 walks (10.9%) while striking out 32 (23.4%). Those numbers present an overall drop from his career numbers: 3.11 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, .231 OBA, 8.9 BB%, and 26.7%.

It probably doesn’t come as much surprise that Jones’s most effective pitch this season was his wipe-out slider. While he threw it 33.2% of the time averaging 88.8 mph, hitters slashed just .167/.261/.381 while whiffing 48.9% of the time against it. Against his hard sinker, which he threw 64.7% of the time averaging 97.2 mph, hitters slashed .275/.350/.377 while whiffing 21.3% of the time. Jones’s changeup, which he threw exclusively against lefties, was offered just 2.1% of the time and averaged 88.6 mph, earning a whiff rate of 14.3%.

Jones posted a 0.3 bWAR for the year. Considering each bWAR is worth approximately $7.7 million according to FanGraphs, that WAR value put against his 2018 salary of $3.95 million means that Jones actually provided a negative net value of $1.64 million.

What does the future have in store for Jones in a White Sox uniform?

The White Sox opted to say “yes” on Jones’s 2019 option, which means the veteran will be earning $4.65 million this year. Jones will turn 33 in January, and of his seven major league seasons, only three have elapsed without serious injuries. Thus, picking up Jones’s option is certainly a risk by the White Sox. However, it may well have been an even greater risk if they elected to buy him out for $1.25 million, since the only reliever currently slated for the White Sox’s Opening Day roster with more than two years of experience is Juan Minaya. The White Sox have another club option on Jones for 2020 ($5.15 million) and there’s a mutual option in 2021 for $6 million.

Barring any additional offseason trades or free agent pickups, Jones slots in as the setup man for recently-arrived closer Alex Colomé next season. Just looking at righties for the moment, other relievers that have a chance to be on next year’s Opening Day roster include Juan Minaya, Dylan Covey (in a swingman role), Ian Hamilton, Jose Ruiz, Ryan Burr, and Thyago Vieira — and the latter four provide high-ceiling, high-leverage alternatives.

If the White Sox have a miserable 2019, they will likely shop Jones to reliever-starved teams prior to the trade deadline — provided, of course, that Jones is healthy. If the Sox are surprisingly in the playoff hunt, they likely will continue to keep Jones around. Even with options for 2020 and 2021, he’s really not all that expensive by today’s standards. However, with those aforementioned potential closers and others in the system (a group that includes Zack Burdi, Matt Foster, Zach Thompson, Carson Fulmer, and Tyler Johnson), Jones may eventually transition into a lower-leverage reliever at some point.