Generally, the bigger and longer the deal, the riskier. It doesn’t follow, of course, that the opposite makes the shortest, smallest deal the best, but it does make it less risky. And, when it comes to a guy like Nate Jones, who the White Sox just signed to an interesting deal, risk is the key word. The particulars of the deal, though, reduced the risk to the team, while also adding reward.
The contract is massively different depending on his future injury outcomes. It’s “only” three years and $8 million guaranteed, yes. But there are options beyond that, and if he needs another Tommy John, those three options total $8.5 million according to Jeff Passan. If he doesn’t need that surgery again, they get two club options at $9.8 combined, and a mutual option of $6 million at the end.
This is good news because the pitcher checks every box when it comes to injuries and Tommy John in particular.
He’s been injured in the past, which is the best predictor of injury in the future. After going on the disabled list for a hip injury in 2014, the right-hander ended up having Tommy John surgery. He pitched two innings that year. Recovery took a while. He pitched 19 innings this past year. He’s oft-injured.
He throws very hard — according to Daren Willman, he was the only pitcher to throw all of his fastballs harder than 95 mph last year. He also throws many sliders, which leads to more disabled list time, and more Tommy John surgeries.
The stuff Jones has is a blessing and a curse. No right-hander got as many whiffs per pitch on the slider as Jones did last year, and only four got more grounders on the pitch. It was the hardest slider in baseball at 92.7 mph. Pairing that with the third-hardest sinker in baseball has given him near unhittable stuff when he’s been healthy. He has a top 25 swinging strike rate since 2013, at least.
But the White Sox assumed risk by signing their reliever to a multi-year deal in the first place. Why add risk, even if it’s mitigated by the terms of the deal?
For one, there’s evidence that chaining together two excellent relievers has cascading benefits for the team. The eighth inning is very important to winning ball games, and the market has begun paying for it. The public math is starting to catch up.
The team is also limiting financial risk should Jones turn into the elite closer he could be. Very few things predict closer changes, but new closers have higher velocity and more swinging strikes than the ones they supplant, and Jones has the potential to lord both of those things over incumbent David Robertson.
The team has also been up and down in past years. If their win-now moves of the offseason — trading for Brett Lawrie and Todd Frazier — don’t work out, add Robertson to the list of players that they could trade for some sort of future talent bounty. They’d have Jones to step in, then.
If Jones became the closer and was not under a fixed contract, his salary would skyrocket with every additional save. Young closers have doubled the salaries of comparable young setup men in arbitration, mostly due to the perceived value of the save.
So there is a reward for the White Sox, beyond a good setup man on a low salary number. By taking on the risk of giving Jones any guaranteed years, the team gets the benefit of having a cheap closer should it ever come to that. And to mitigate that risk further, they added in the injury language.
It’s a small deal, but it is multitude. Within it, you’ll find so much of what is going on in baseball these days.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.