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If the White Sox bullpen was going to work, it was going to need Nate Jones to step up.
So far, neither has happened. Jones became the latest reliever to wear it, getting jumped for four runs over the span of eight pitches as he blew a three-run lead to the Pirates on Wednesday.
Jones’ ERA rose to 4.40 on the season, and it feels a little worse than that, if only because opponents are hitting an uncharacteristic .255/.333/.400 against him, and the first batter he faces reaches base half the time. In his last full season back in 2016, the first batter only had a .183 OBP against him. He’s spent far more of this season in trouble.
“Just didn’t execute right there,” Jones said. “We had some pitches in mind, and didn’t execute on my part. Big league hitters do what they’re supposed to do when [you] leave pitches up or in the zone, and I paid for it.”
… and as unsatisfying as that might be, that pretty much seems to be the case. He doesn’t seem to have his hugest fastball anymore, but he’s about where he was in terms of average velocity, and he’s throwing his slider a little harder.
It seems to be a feel thing, at least with the off-speed offering, and lefties are Jones-crushers in particular.
An outing before Colin Moran hit a game-winning on a spinning slider, Jones threw a hanger that Eddie Rosario belted to center for a solo shot. As a result, Jones now yields a higher slugging percentage on his slider than his fastball, which is basically disaster for him.
If nothing’s physically wrong with Jones, then it stands to reason that he should be able to rediscover his stuff. Then again, he’s 32 years old and has spent plenty of time in the operating room over the last four seasons, with surgeries on his back, elbow and forearm. I’ve only been comparing his 2018 pitches to his 2016 performance because he doesn’t have the sample size anywhere else.
- 2014: 0 innings
- 2015: 19
- 2016: 70.2
- 2017: 11.2
There’s a reason he agreed to the three-year contract extensions with team options, because being irreparably thrown off course was a real risk.
We’re basically left to wait and see, and waiting and seeing with a high-leverage reliever is the worst form of the practice.
Adding to the frustration is that Jones came into the season as the one White Sox other teams could want at the deadline. Avisail Garcia didn’t stir up much interest over the winter, and the White Sox value Jose Abreu more highly than the league does first basemen in general. Maybe the Sox would consider dealing Leury Garcia or Yolmer Sanchez to a team in need of a versatile bench figure, although Eduardo Escobar’s Twins career cautions against the latter. If none of those work, the Sox would have to count on relievers again being their main export.
They succeeded with that last deadline, dealing David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, Anthony Swarzak and Dan Jennings. Robertson is the only one who still looks like a high-leverage guy. Swarzak hasn’t pitched this season due to an oblique issue, and Kahnle walked eight guys in six games with a big drop in velocity before hitting the disabled list with biceps and shoulder tendinitis.
Kahnle could return by the end of the month, but it’s the kind of situation that shows why the Sox erred trading him too early than too late. Meanwhile, Blake Rutherford’s performance at Winston-Salem this season put the trade back on level ground.
If that’s the risk teams incur by trading for previously healthy relievers (you can add Zach Duke to this list as well), I wouldn’t count on the Sox getting much for Jones even if he’s able to clean up his slider in short order. There’s a lot of scar tissue in his past, and while team options offset some of the risk, it doesn’t make him more exciting.
Assuming other teams feel the same way, the biggest beneficiaries from a Jones rebound might be those who are still watching the Sox, and that’s fine, too. Late-inning order is preferable to wondering about the odds of Jeanmar Gomez leading the White Sox in saves at the end of the 2018 season, or maybe that’s just me.