GLENDALE, Ariz. — For the first time in three years, the White Sox will begin a season able to pencil Nate Jones into the middle of their bullpen mix.
Jones is finally healthy after undergoing a back procedure and Tommy John surgery that wiped out over a season and a half, limiting him to two games in 2014 and 19 games in 2015. He has the dubious distinction of being one of 48 players in major league history to have an infinite ERA in a season — he allowed four runs in two games and didn’t record an out before hitting the disabled list in 2014 — but returned strong last summer, posting a 3.32 ERA in 19 games.
The White Sox bullpen that was solid in 2015 (a 3.67 ERA, 16th in MLB), but could come together nicely with a full season of the flamethrowing Jones pitching in the latter innings.
“(He’s) an important piece,” manager Robin Ventura said. “For him, you have that power arm back there that you can feel comfortable using multiple days.”
Few players may be enjoying the slog of spring training more than Jones, who admitted last year’s rehab process from Tommy John surgery left him on his own most of the time.
“It makes you feel actually a part of the team,” Jones said. “Last spring training, I’d be coming in early, doing my rehab and stuff like that, everybody’s going up to play games and I’m stuck here.”
But that loneliness of sorts paid off when Jones returned to the White Sox bullpen last August. The White Sox eased him into high leverage spots, but when he started pitching in more of those, he excelled. Jones appeared in five high-leverage spots in August and September and didn’t allow a run in any of them, totaling six strikeouts, two walks and three hits in 5 2/3 innings.
“It made me very thankful of all the rehabbing that I did,” Jones said of his return last year. “It got me back to that point. It just let me know, hey, I can do it. I worked my butt off during the rehab and this is the end product of it and I can still contribute.”
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Ventura said he’ll have better flexibility to use Jones and Zach Duke in tight spots late in games this year to set up closer David Robertson, with the benefit there being an ability to avoid taxing either pitcher. The trickle-down to the rest of the bullpen will be positive, too, with Jake Petricka, Zach Putnam, Matt Albers and whoever else staffs the relief corps able to stay fresh throughout the season.
“You can give a guy a break — that becomes the biggest thing is you don’t have to overuse people in the bullpen,” Ventura said. “That becomes the tough fight. You need to have enough depth that you’re not using the same guys that are back there the entire time.”