Swapping Stories: The Mitch Williams Trade of 1985

April 6, 1985: Texas trades minor league third baseman Randy Asadoor to San Diego for lefthander Mitch Williams.

Long before Joe Carter turned a Mitch Williams fastball around and sealed the baseball legacy for both of them, Williams was notable for another, less heralded reason. He was one of the greatest Rule 5 draft picks of his generation.

It’s an almost impossible story. San Diego had chosen the 17-year-old in the 1982 draft, Sandy Johnson’s first as Padres scouting director. The organization’s roving minor league pitching instructor, Tom House, watched the skinny, untamed southpaw at fall instructs and told Johnson that the eighth-rounder would have a longer, more successful career than Dallas Thomas Jefferson righthander Jimmy Jones, who was the third pick in the entire draft – two spots ahead of fellow high school righty Dwight Gooden.

It’s not that House didn’t believe in Jones. “I could just tell that Mitch was goofy enough not to let the game bother him,” House says. He was onto something.

Plenty of teenaged pitchers probably would have been bothered enough to call it quits, assuming their organization hadn’t already taken the decision out of their hands, if they’d issued 314 walks in 372.2 innings like Williams did in his first three pro seasons, an unfathomable rate of 7.5 free passes per nine frames. But Williams was unfazed.

So was Johnson, who became the Rangers’ scouting director in November 1984. Four weeks into the job, Johnson persuaded general manager Tom Grieve to use a Rule 5 pick on the 19-year-old Williams, meaning that he’d have to break camp on the big league roster or else be run through waivers and offered back to the Padres.

When Rangers players got their first look at Williams in spring training in Pompano Beach, the club’s left-handed hitters refused to take batting practice against him. Opposing hitters had no choice, but in seven innings of work that spring, they touched him up for 10 earned runs.

The club simply couldn’t devote a roster spot to Williams, but as it turns out, his terrible spring was probably a blessing in disguise for Texas. The club got him through waivers unclaimed, and as Rule 5 requires, they offered him back to San Diego for $25,000. But that’s not all they offered the Padres.

Texas had used its third-round pick in 1983 on Fresno State third baseman Randy Asadoor, thinking enough of him to launch his pro career at AA Tulsa. In 582 Driller at-bats between 1983 and 1984, he clubbed 24 homers and drove in 81 runs. Texas, which still had a productive Buddy Bell at the hot corner, offered Asadoor to the Padres, who were starting 40-year-old Graig Nettles at third base without a clear successor in place, in exchange for Williams. Because Williams had cleared waivers, he’d effectively been returned to San Diego, meaning a trade for him at that point wouldn’t require a big league assignment.

On April 6, 1985, San Diego agreed to the deal. (The Rangers immediately converted AAA second baseman Steve Buechele to third base, and three months later Texas traded Bell to Cincinnati and brought Buechele up to Texas, where he would man third base for seven years.) Asadoor played in AAA in 1985 and 1986 before getting a cup of coffee with San Diego in September 1986. He hit .364 in a 15-game look, but it would turn out to be the only big league action of his career.

Meanwhile, Texas assigned Williams to Class A Salem, where he led the Carolina League with 117 walks (in 99 innings) even though he spent only four months in the league before a promotion to Tulsa. He exhibited even less control with the Drillers, walking 48 Texas Leaguers in 33 frames over six starts.

Then something inconceivable happened. The following year, Mitch Williams would lead the American League in appearances, a Major League rookie record 80 games pitched, saving eight, winning eight, and holding opponents to a .202 batting average. His walk rate was nearly half of what it had been in Salem and Tulsa the year before, and his 3.58 ERA was lower – by more than a full run – than it had been in any of the four years he’d spent in the minors. It was magic.

Not according to House, though. Texas had hired him in January, and nobody in the organization understood Williams’s upside better than House, who had been with the Padres ever since the wild lefty had signed and, like Sandy Johnson, was thrilled to have him as a potential piece of the Rangers’ future. House was initially brought on as a pro scout, but when general manager Tom Grieve fired manager Doug Rader in May and replaced him with Bobby Valentine, the new skipper made House his pitching coach. How Williams was developing in Salem, Virginia was not House’s concern at that point, but he offered one piece of input.

“I thought Mitch needed to be in the bullpen,” says House. “When he had too much time to think between starts, all that amounted to was time for him to figure out how to screw things up.” Williams had appeared in 91 games before making his big league debut. Ninety of them had been starts. The conversion to relief began that off-season, with Santurce in the Puerto Rican Winter League.

Sporting a new job description, Williams gave up just three runs (and five walks) over 10 relief innings in spring training in 1986, and House convinced Valentine and Grieve that he was ready to contribute to the Rangers pen. By mid-June, he’d won six games, saved two more, and had a 1.60 ERA. He’d finish the year with 90 strikeouts, most of any southpaw reliever in baseball, and after an even more dominant season in 1987, he became the Rangers’ closer in 1988.

After the 1988 season, Williams was the key to the six-player package that Grieve sent to the Cubs for Rafael Palmeiro, Jamie Moyer, and Drew Hall. He would pitch for nine more years, including a 1993 season with the Phillies in which he’d log a career-best 43 saves but ultimately end up on the wrong end of one of the most legendary moments in World Series history.

Today Williams is a regular contributor on the 610WIP Morning Show in Philadelphia, the site of the devastating moment that’s unfortunately his baseball epitaph moment. But as far as his Texas Rangers legacy is concerned, it’s nothing but positive, due in no small part to the vision that Sandy Johnson and Tom House had for Williams to redefine himself, solidifying the Rule 5 pick and the trade that followed as among the finest in franchise history.

Jamey Newberg is a contributor to MLB.com. A Dallas lawyer, he has been an insane Texas Rangers fan since the days of scheduled doubleheaders, Bat Nights when they actually handed out a piece of lumber instead of a grocery store voucher, and Jim Umbarger. He has covered the Texas Rangers, from the big club down through the entire farm system, since 1998 on his website, NewbergReport.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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