MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Unheralded Jones could be key to Sox turnaround

Hard-throwing righty looks to provide consistency in setup role for Chicago

Unheralded Jones could be key to Sox turnaround

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- You've heard a lot about the White Sox the last couple of years.

For a team that has had three consecutive losing seasons, they've certainly kept it interesting. Jose Abreu and Chris Sale have been dynamos on the field, and the front office has been consistently aggressive trying to improve the team around them, turning over five spots in the lineup after last season.

Todd Frazier is going to make a big difference. Brett Lawrie, Austin Jackson and Jimmy Rollins are veteran upgrades, and the catching platoon of Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro will supply more hitting than Tyler Flowers did in his three seasons as the regular catcher.

But do you know about Nate Jones?

Maybe not. His resume is almost as short as his name, and he heads into 2016 with minimal billing.

But here's a clip-and-save for anyone who is going to follow the American League postseason race: If the White Sox succeed in getting back to the postseason for the first time since 2008, it will be because it was impossible not to notice Jones.

Jones is one of the best pitchers you may not know about -- maybe even the best. He's also a great story, having bounced back after undergoing Tommy John surgery only three months after back surgery. For the White Sox, he looks like the eighth-inning arm they've needed for most of the last decade.

That's no small thing. Just ask Chicago manager Robin Ventura.

Ventura has been searching for a reliable setup man since injuries derailed Jesse Crain in the first half of 2013, with no one staying in the role for long. Watching the 30-year-old Jones throw this spring, Ventura could picture him taking over as the bridge to closer David Robertson, maybe even for years to come.

Jones records the save

"I hope so," Ventura said. "I wouldn't mind that at all. I've always had to juggle the last couple of years. We've been pretty young [in that role]. I think he has the ability to do that."

There are all different kinds of players in the Majors. Jones is the humble kind, seemingly unaware just how talented he is and how significant he could become for his team.

"Whenever they want me to pitch, I'll pitch," Jones said. "I've honestly been one of those guys who whatever inning it is, I'll give it everything I've got. I'll try to close it down or if I have to go multiple innings, I'll go out there and do my best.

"My first appearance up here was in the mop-up role and I loved it. I was happy to be part of the bullpen. That hasn't changed a bit. Whatever role they give me, eighth or long guy, it doesn't matter to me."

Jones' career was derailed by the back and elbow injuries after only two outings in 2014. It was somewhat amazing that he was able to return last August, given the severity of the two surgeries he underwent.

But the way Jones pitched? That was beyond anyone's expectations.

You've got to look beyond the 3.32 ERA in his 19 outings. It was largely the result of five home runs allowed.

Jones pounded the strike zone with a 98-mph fastball and a hard sinker that is about as much fun for hitters as a tax audit. He had a K/9 ratio of 12.8 and an 0.95 WHIP. But here's the thing that really grabs you: Opponents posted a .035 average against his slider.

The last time he gave up a line drive off that pitch? According to Brooks Baseball, that was in 2013.

The White Sox were so intrigued by what they saw from Jones they gave him a three-year, $8-million contract extension in the offseason. It includes contract options for 2019-21, with the key for them being whether he needs a second Tommy John surgery.

White Sox, Jones agree to deal

"[The deal] came right before Christmas," Jones said. "Heck of a Christmas gift. I was very fortunate, blessed, that I was healthy the last two months and got to show that all that hard work in the rehab process paid off. It gives me confidence because it shows the White Sox have confidence in me. That's for sure."

Give Jones credit for using his time wisely. He worked on both his mechanics and his command while he was recovering from the two surgeries, driving more toward the plate as opposed to throwing across his body. "Just minor stuff," Jones said.

A fifth-round pick in the 2007 Draft from Northern Kentucky University, Jones has been a long-term project for the White Sox's Minor League pitching coaches, including Kirk Champion, Richard Dotson and J.R. Perdew. For years, both his fastball and curveballs were considered the best among the team's Minor League pitchers, but in '11, Perdew worked with him to develop a slider to throw instead of his curveball.

"They took that slider away in Rookie ball," Jones said. "When they put it back, it was easy, natural for me because I already had that pitch before."

Ventura says Jones was so good when he joined the bullpen last season that "it was almost like trading for somebody."

The skipper can't wait to see if Jones builds off that success. If he doesn't give up many home runs throwing fastballs in hitter's counts, he could blossom into being one of the game's best setup men.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.