The White Sox won't name a closer until the last possible second, but Nate Jones appears the odds-on favorite to win the job as pitchers and catchers report to Glendale this week.
The 28-year-old Jones isn't viewing the ninth inning as his to lose, given the presence of Matt Lindstrom (who has prior closing experience) and Daniel Webb (who pitching coach Don Cooper mentioned when asked about the closer gig during SoxFest). Cooper and the White Sox, too, have an erratic history of picking closers, though more times than not they've been successful in doing so.
With all that in mind, Jones is entering spring training viewing it as an open competition.
"I don't want to assume anything because when you start assuming stuff, worse stuff happens," Jones said last month at SoxFest. "But I use that as motivation. If it's open, I want to go for it. That's what's going to motivate me through spring training."
Jones has the prototypical closer repertoire — an upper-90's fastball and wipeout slider that comprise about 95 percent of the pitches he throws — and has a solid major league track record to pair with it. In his two years with the White Sox, Jones has faced 210 batters in high leverage/pressure situations and has limited them to a .682 OPS.
But players preach a different pressure in the ninth, the kind of pressure that comes with the finality of things when a pitcher leaves the mound. That's just half of the mental barrier — the other half is working past a blown save and not letting it have a lingering negative effect.
"That was tough for me when I was closing early on in my career, I though it was the end of the world if I blew a save," Lindstrom said. "But I learned that we have a game, and the position players are out their busting their tail to win that game too. So you need to flush the toilet and get back on that horse and get going."
While Jones' ERA jumped from 2.39 to 4.15 from 2012 to 2013, the right-hander feels he pitched better last year than he did in his first season. It's a belief that's supported by numbers beyond his ERA — Jones had a higher strikeout rate, a lower walk rate and generated more swings on pitches outside the strike zone.
"I feel like I became a better overall pitcher and hopefully I can carry that into this year and learn from it," Jones said.
When the White Sox shipped Addison Reed to Arizona, it opened the door for Jones to be the next in a solid line of White Sox closers. This is a team that's successfully rotated closers for a decade, from Shingo Takatsu to Dustin Hermanson to Bobby Jenks to Sergio Santos to Addison Reed. When someone falters, like Takatsu, Jenks, Matt Thornton or Hector Santiago, someone else has stepped in and locked down the ninth.
Jones will have first crack at adding to that list. But if it's not him, the track record is good enough to believe someone else can step in and get the job done.