Healthy after two seasons, Nate Jones showed the White Sox enough in 2015 to earn a lengthy contract extension on Friday.
The team announced it signed the right-handed reliever -- who had reconstructive elbow surgery in July 2014 -- to a three-year, $8-million deal that includes three options. Jones, who could have filed for free agency after only two more seasons, potentially could stay with the White Sox through 2021.
After he returned from Tommy John surgery last season, Jones went 2-2 with a 3.27 ERA and 27 strikeouts in 19 innings. With improved velocity from two seasons ago, Jones averaged 12.79 strikeouts per nine innings.
“It was a long road,” Jones said. “But this definitely makes it worth it. That’s for sure.
“I’m glad they think of me that way, enough of me to offer me this. I want to be a White Sox for a long time. They are doing things right and building their team to win. I want to be a part of that winning.”
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The deal calls for Jones to earn $900,000 this season, the same amount he was projected to earn in arbitration, according to mlbtraderumors.com. The right-hander receives raises to $1.9 million in 2017 and $3.95 million in 2018, which would have been his first year of free agency. The club holds options for 2019 ($4.65 million) and 2020 ($5.15 million) and the deal includes a $6 million mutual option for 2021. The contract has a $1.25 million buyout if any option is decline.
With closer David Robertson under contract for three more seasons, Jones is slotted as one of the team’s top setup men along with Jake Petricka, Zach Putnam and Zach Duke. Given how abysmal the team’s bullpen was in 2014, when Jones was only available for the first three games, general manager Rick Hahn has opted to mostly keep last year’s group intact. Of the key performers in 2015, only Matt Albers, a free agent, is unlikely to return.
“We view Nate as a key component in the back end of our bullpen,” Hahn said in a press release. “Nate is a homegrown pitcher with a power arm and tremendous work ethic, so we are excited to be able to reward him for what he has accomplished thus far in his career and potentially keep him in a White Sox uniform for the next six seasons.”
Jones made a nice comeback in 2015 following a series of injuries that limited him to two games in 2014. What began as a strained gluteal muscle in spring training 2014 ultimately led to surgery, a micro discectomy to take pressure off his nerves and relieve back pain. Later that summer, Jones tore his ulnar collateral ligament while rehabbing and had elbow surgery on July 29.
The White Sox encouraged Jones to go slow in his recovery, pushing back the start of the throwing portion of his rehab by a more than a month and into the start of the new year. Jones flourished in the process, making all of his side sessions once he did hit the mound and throwing harder than he did before the procedure. His fastball averaged 97.6 mph this season, according to fangraphs.com, up two miles per hour from the early part of 2014. He also averaged 89.4 mph with his slider, up nearly two miles per hour from 2013.
Jones said the lengthy rehab process allowed him to repair his mechanics, including taking a straighter path to home.
“I was very pleased,” Jones said. “The rehab gave me an opportunity to clean things up, make sure my direction was going towards the plate and not towards first base.
“They very well could have gave up on me at any point. But they didn’t. They stuck with me and they saw enough of results from last year when I came back and they like what they saw. They know what kind of work ethic I have and they know I’m going to give it everything I got all the time.”