Jones gets surprise nod on final roster
Right-handed reliever one of four rookies to make squad
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Sometime early Saturday morning, White Sox bench coach Mark Parent tracked down Nate Jones in the team's Camelback Ranch clubhouse and brought him to see Robin Ventura.
The news delivered by the White Sox manager was life-changing for the 26-year-old rookie right-handed reliever.
"He told me, 'Congratulations.' That's when they told me," said a smiling Jones, who joined Zach Stewart as the last two pitchers in the White Sox bullpen, with the team setting its 25-man roster prior to Saturday's contest with the Rockies. "That's when it set in there. It's a good feeling."
With Dylan Axelrod optioned to Triple-A Charlotte and Brian Bruney, Hector Gimenez, Rey Olmedo, Leyson Septimo and Eric Stults reassigned to Minor League camp, Ventura's first roster was put in place. And Jones became the feel-good surprise story of this particular camp.
Jones added a cutter/slider to his repertoire last season and has worked on his changeup over the past six weeks. He showed that change during his one inning of work Friday against the Royals, bouncing back from walking the first two hitters he faced to pitch a scoreless inning.
Having Jones make the team might be a stunner to some outside the organization. According to general manager Ken Williams, Jones didn't surprise those who are familiar with his work. Williams actually had an idea in his mind of Jones' Major League preparedness before his coaching staff.
"Couple of weeks ago," said Williams, as to when he knew Jones would make the team. "The coaching staff has to get comfortable with their own assessments. That's why we have our morning meetings sometimes. But a couple weeks ago it became evident to me that he had taken that next step and he had to go out and prove it and prove it to the coaching staff."
"Once in a while, he can give you some short innings," said Ventura of Jones' role. "He'll probably have to stretch out with Stew being the long guy. And then Nate will have to float in there in between and do a little bit of both."
Four rookies will break camp with the White Sox, in Jones, left-handed reliever Hector Santiago, right-handed reliever Addison Reed and utility infielder Eduardo Escobar. When left-handed-hitting corner infielders Dan Johnson and Dallas McPherson were reassigned to Minor League camp earlier in the week, it was a foregone conclusion that Escobar had arrived.
That conclusion became official when Ventura informed Escobar of the news Saturday.
"I told him to get a suit," said Ventura with a wry smile of his message to the switch-hitting Escobar. "He was happy. He earned it. Again, you go through different decisions. For me, he earned it as much as everybody."
"Robin likes him. He likes his energy and his ability to switch-hit and he can surprise you with his ability to drive the ball," said Williams of Escobar. "He can bunt, he can run and move runners. There are a lot of things he can do. He can play third, short and second. I think he's probably going to get his fair share of playing time."
Stewart, Reed, Santiago and Jones give the White Sox four relievers with 70 days or less of Major League experience, with the last three relievers having no more than 30 days. Second baseman Gordon Beckham and third baseman Brent Morel join Reed, Santiago, Jones and Chris Sale as homegrown prospects heading to Texas for the season opener.
Versatility off the bench is present in Brent Lillibridge, Kosuke Fukudome and Escobar, while the bullpen has a group of live arms that seemingly are interchangeable in the late innings.
"People falsely, hopefully, are looking at our club saying, 'Because they have youth, they're not going to compete,'" Williams said. "This is a mistake. These are talented people, they're confident and they have a lot of heart. We've taken care of our pitching over the years."
"A lot of different things happen during the year and you have to be able to adapt to it," Ventura said. "So that's one of the comforts you have, guys who can fill in different spots and feel confident that they can do it in the end. It's not a patch job."
Of course, Jones has the least amount of experience of the whole crew and many people didn't expect that level to change when camp began.
So, it was understandable that the excited native of Butler, Kent., started making phone calls as soon as his Major League career officially began.
"My wife was the first call, my dad was the second call. I let them know," Jones said. "They were screaming and hooting and hollering. It was a lot of fun.
"From the beginning, it was a process, and I have to thank a lot of people. A lot of my pitching coaches: [Larry Owens], Bobby Thigpen, J.R. Perdew. They helped me along the way, all those guys.
"Now, it's almost a finished project," Jones said. "[White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper] and [bullpen coach] Juan [Nieves], they have been helping me this spring. It has been a long road, but it's well worth it for sure."