Nate Jones — The Late-Inning Secret on the South Side

With established players fleeing the south side of Chicago like their hair’s on fire — like any good rebuild, honestly — it’s a little strange that one of the vested veterans left standing is closer David Robertson.

If not perfect, Robertson has been perfectly useful over his first two seasons with the White Sox in the closer’s role. Despite the team only winning an average of 77 games in those first two seasons, Robertson has saved roughly half of those wins (71) with a decent 3.44 ERA (3.04 FIP), much more than a strikeout per inning (11.5 K/9) and a walk rate right around his career mark, though it was much better in year one (1.8 BB/9) than year two (4.6).

With $25 million left on his deal and the free-agent market barren for late-inning relievers not only now, but at the advent of the offseason, Robertson still presents a fairly decent value. It makes sense for the White Sox to cash that in for myriad reasons, not the least of which is the closer-in-waiting and today’s subject: Nate Jones.

Who?

NATE JONES. Jones pitched like all-caps NATE JONES last season, with a 2.29 ERA (2.93 FIP), a sub-1.00 WHIP and phenomenal K (10.2) and BB (1.9) rates. It was quite a season for a pitcher who had put together just 19 MLB innings over the previous two seasons after battling back issues and Tommy John surgery. Frankly, Jones outpitched Robertson in 2016, so outside of finances it wouldn’t be hard to argue that he deserves a shot at the closer’s role.

But finances play a huge role, of course. That is most likely why Robertson will be on the move in the first place. But Jones isn’t as young as one might think; despite debuting in 2012, Jones turns 31 this week. He’s about eight months younger than Robertson. And while age is certainly a factor for rebuilding teams to consider, so is years of control. With Robertson only signed for two more years, the odds aren’t terribly high that the White Sox will be good in that time frame. It’s not unlike the rationale for the Minnesota Twins shopping Brian Dozier this offseason.

Jones, however, was shrewdly signed to an extension following the 2015 season. General manager Rick Hahn saw enough out of Jones in his recovery that season to sign him to a three-year, $8 million deal. That deal paid Jones just $900k this past season, and guaranteed him $1.9 million in 2017 and $3.95 million in 2018. That also includes three team options through Jones’ age-35 season, which in order are for $4.65, $5.15 and $6 million with $1.25 million buyouts and provisions for if he has to undergo elbow surgery again.

It’s one of the more team-friendly deals one can imagine, but it also means the White Sox see a scenario in which Jones could pitch himself into that closer’s role. Is it coincidental that the option years coincide with solid pay raises once Robertson’s deal would be over? It’s hard to say. But a spendy closer is a luxury a rebuilding team doesn’t need, so it would behoove the White Sox to move Robertson and install Jones as closer.

Jones has showed he’s fully back, and then some, from what were two pretty serious issues. His velocity spiked in the short 2015 sampling after returning, but he was pretty much right at his career rate last season (96.8 mph against a career average of 97.4) and his high-80s slider is a sight to behold. It has a career whiff rate of 23.4 percent (26.8 percent last season), and came in at an average of 88.3 mph last season.

In addition to buckets full of strikeouts and no walks, Jones induces about the league average in grounders as well (47.1 percent career, 45.9 percent each of last two seasons). In short, he should be someone’s closer. An enterprising team would do well to try trade for him — and maybe the White Sox have put a prohibitive price on him, which would make sense — but otherwise, he could lie in the weeds as the next closer on the south side and be quite a find for enterprising owners. Or, as Paul Sporer teased this offseason, the White Sox could move Robertson before all your fantasy drafts and take some of the wind out of Jones’ sleeper sails.

Still, it seems unlikely his value will take off between now and drafts, I think. He’ll have a ton of value in holds leagues and might be the best closer-in-waiting in the entire game. That’s one hell of a valuable fantasy commodity.

We hoped you liked reading Nate Jones — The Late-Inning Secret on the South Side by Brandon Warne!

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In addition to Rotographs, Warne writes about the Minnesota Twins for The Athletic and is a sportswriter for Sportradar U.S. in downtown Minneapolis. Follow him on Twitter @Brandon_Warne, or feel free to email him to do podcasts or for any old reason at brandon.r.warne@gmail-dot-com

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