As someone who has been very high on Nate Jones since at least his breakout in 2013, was elated at his return in 2015, and even endorsed him as the centerpiece of that truly disastrous 2014 bullpen experiment, the announcement of his extension still put me through a sliding scale of reactions as the torrent details and additional years of control and clauses were revealed.
Let's try to recreate it with internet magic.
"Hmm, well, ok. Nate Jones, recently out of a long stretch of absence that included Tommy John surgery, full of potential and nasty stuff but inconsistent performance, including his eye-popping but still erratic 19 innings (3.36 ERA, five dingers, but 27 strikeouts) in 2015, is not someone I would leap off to couch to get cost-certainty over his last two arbitration years, but taking on a year of free agency at such a guaranteed low price, is an easy win for the White Sox for this contract as it currently announced." - I said to myself at the time, very eloquently.
"...Or they're controlling three of his free agent years, and don't even have to guarantee the last two, and all of those years are absurdly affordable. Well, now this is an absurdly team-friendly deal, and something comparable to the Chris Sale and Jose Quintana deals if Jones because a reliably elite reliever year-in, year-out, which he is capable of becoming even if I wouldn't quite gamble on it yet." - I said to myself with increasing levels of excitement.
"I was already approving of this contract with the risk of injury considered, this is just unnecessary, really..." -I stammered like a dunce.
"So, uh why did Nate Jones take this deal?"
It's pretty easy to imagine why. Jones did not make the majors until age 26, will turn 30 before Opening Day and just got through nearly a year and half on the shelf working his way back from major injury. $8 million guaranteed for his family probably sounds like a damn fine thing to have given all that he's been through. The deal stirs memory of Sergio Santos, who signed a similarly option-laden deal after his breakout 2011 season, granting the White Sox oodles of control right as he was seemingly on the precipice of becoming a legitimate MLB closer.
But like Jones, Santos had not made his MLB debut until he was 26, and not until after his prospect shine as an infielder had worn off so much that he had switched to pitching as a desperate bid to keeps his MLB dreams alive. The guaranteed money after his hopes of making a career out of baseball were on a razor's edge for so long sounded awful good, and his decision proved to be the right one for him. Shoulder and control problems have kept Sergio from ever coming close to duplicating 2011's success, but he has still earned $9 million over his career.
For the Sox, if Jones turns out anything like the 8th inning shutdown reliever that a 100 mph fastball with a biting 92 mph slider, or a 29.6% strikeout rate since 2013 would suggest, they make out like bandits, with control over Jones at below-market prices through his age-34 season. If he gets a second TJ surgery during his guaranteed window, it stings for the Sox efforts to compete in this current window, but adds another year of control onto the deal. If he completely blows up, gets hurt and never pitches again or provides any value, they will eat roughly the same amount of money they ate for the Keppinger deal. Obviously that's not nothing for this organization, but when the real financial risk only starts to set in if the player is carried off by an enormous bird the moment after he signs the contract, it's not a very high-risk deal.
So, to reiterate, or if you're just scrolling through this post to get the gist, this is a great, great deal on its own for the White Sox.
But, since it's mid-December and the White Sox are undergoing a rapid roster transformation, we're not going to just leave this deal on its own. It's ripe for speculation on what move locking up Jones is opening the Sox up to make. Since Jones was primed to head up the bullpen in 2014, and the Sox are motivated to find a way to secure a high-value plus-hitting right fielder without adding payroll, people are asking if this is the first step toward setting Jones as a closer going forward and the precursor to shopping David Robertson for the offensive help they might be unwilling to just pay for.
Robertson, with his age and market-value salary, doesn't have the value of a Craig Kimbrel, but the relief market is such to believe that the Sox could do very well shipping out a vaunted closer for corner outfield help, and maybe even get superior value depending on what's available, or if they trade for upside. For an example that would not work because the Cubs aren't interested in paying up for relief help, Jorge Soler would be the sort of 'light on current production, potential for high-level future production' type to target, though there really are not many promising fits at this moment.
But even if they pulled something like that off, then they would have a bad bullpen. As much as the recent run on elite relievers probably has a degree of overreaction to it, the balance to strike is not to revert to dated sabermetric principles of "relievers throw so few innings so they're not important" and ignoring leverage. Jones is a cool pitcher, but has yet to carve out a substantial post-injury track record, and was lacking in command nearly as often as he was showstopping in his 2015 return. It's great to have him on the team, but putting him at the top of the pecking order if a step too far. Or more, since the other members of the Sox best relief corps, Jake Petricka and Zach Putnam, are mostly one-pitch role players who are not serious candidates for promotion beyond their current 6th-8th inning jobs.
In sum, the Sox bullpen is like the rest of the roster, with good enough headliners too look like a playoff contenders, but lacking the depth to really deal from for major pieces. The Sox could deal Robertson and get good help, but then they would need to find a suitable replacement, and the downside of the relief market being insane is that it would be really hard. There are no free agents even close to Robertson's caliber, and flipping a prospects, especially a Tim Anderson for a closer is going to sting a lot more than it would for Carlos Gonzalez, or a long-term corner outfield solution. A more likely scenario is a yearlong churn in the pen with long opportunities for Daniel Webb and Tommy Kahnle and a rush to bring help from Carson Fulmer.
In the end, it all winds up being a lot simpler to just sign Justin Upton, and not sacrifice good things about the roster--affordable All-Star-level starters, a top-30 shortstop prospect, a top-flight closer signed one offseason before the reliever boom got extra stupid--just for the sake of a payroll ceiling that is out of touch with the cost of fielding a championship-caliber MLB team.