In Their Footsteps: The left-handed set-up reliever

Opinions have been all across the board as to which player was the prize of the five-player package that the Rangers received from the Braves in last July’s trade deadline deal that sent Mark Teixeira and Ron Mahay to Atlanta.  

When the trade was made, most observers identified Jarrod Saltalamacchia as the key to the deal for Texas.  Over the winter, Baseball America tabbed Elvis Andrus as the top prospect in the Rangers’ deep farm system.  Matt Harrison threw a Class AA no-hitter in mid-May, was promoted to Class AAA three weeks later, and at age 22 could be in the big leagues before the season is over.  Baseball Prospectus called Neftali Feliz the Rangers’ top prospect before spring training, and a bunch of others are coming to the same conclusion now.

Lefthander Beau Jones will have come out of nowhere, relatively speaking, if he emerges at some point as the best player Texas acquired in the deal.  But he’s no more of a longshot than Mitch Williams was in the mid-’80s.

Williams had just turned 20 when Texas used a 1984 Rule 5 pick on the wiry southpaw, who in three Class A seasons with the Padres had walked nearly eight hitters per nine innings as a starting pitcher.  Rule 5 requires a drafting team to keep the player in the big leagues, or else it has to run the player through waivers and offer him back to his original team for half the $50,000 draft fee.  

The story is that Williams had so little control of his plus stuff in spring training in 1985 that the Rangers’ left-handed hitters refused to take batting practice against him.  In seven innings of exhibition work, he surrendered 10 earned runs.  Texas couldn’t bring itself to take Williams to Arlington, got him through waivers unclaimed, and offered him back to San Diego at the end of camp. 

The Rangers got creative, however, and proposed a new idea to the Padres: Take Williams back, like Rule 5 permits, and then trade him to us for Randy Asadoor, a 22-year-old third baseman coming off of a 24-homer season at Class A.  Asadoor could settle in as San Diego’s heir apparent to Graig Nettles (in which case Texas would convert AAA second baseman Steve Buechele to third base, making him Buddy Bell’s eventual successor).  San Diego agreed.

Because the trade was made after the Rule 5 constraints had been satisfied, Texas was able to assign Williams to the minor leagues.  Working as a starter for Class A Salem, he led the Carolina League with 117 walks even though he spent only four months in the league before a promotion to Class AA Tulsa.  He proceeded to issue 48 walks in 33 Drillers frames.  Between his two 1985 stops, Williams gave up only 74 hits in 132 innings, but when a pitcher walks an incredible 165 along the way, it’s easy to be skeptical about his odds of reaching the big league.

Yet somehow, that same the 20-year-old who averaged more than 11 walks per nine minor league innings – as a starter – transformed instantly under the tutelage of pitching coach Tom House into a 21-year-old who would lead the American League in appearances (a Major League rookie record 80 games) and win eight games, save another eight, and hold the league to a .202 batting average.  Setting up closer Greg Harris as a rookie, Williams racked up 90 strikeouts, more than any other left-handed reliever in baseball.  His walk rate with the Rangers 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 his four minor league seasons.

Williams was even better in 1987.  With Dale Mohorcic settling into the ninth-inning role, Williams posted a 3.23 ERA, held the American League to a .175 average, and struck out 129 hitters in 108.2 innings.  He won eight games, saved six, and was promoted to closer for the 1988 season.  Though his ERA rose to 4.63 and he converted only 18 of 26 save opportunities, his electric arm keyed the Rangers’ December deal with Cubs for Rafael Palmeiro, Jamie Moyer, and Drew Hall.  He spent the next five years closing games for Chicago and Philadelphia.

Atlanta drafted Beau Jones in the supplemental first round in 2005 out of a Louisiana high school and persuaded him to forgo a scholarship to Louisiana State University.  Featuring a low-90s fastball that touched 95 and a sharp-breaking curve that had out-pitch potential, he was a kid that the Braves envisioned as yet another in a long line of southpaw starters who would march into Atlanta and flourish.  

But after a solid debut summer, Jones had command issues in 2006, his first full pro season, working as a starter for Class A Rome.  Though he struck out 101 hitters in 110.2 innings, he issued an unacceptable 83 walks, and Atlanta returned him to Rome in 2007, only this time as a reliever.  

The transformation was Mitch Williams-esque.  In 48.2 innings, introducing a vastly improved changeup to his mix, Jones registered 46 strikeouts and issued only 12 walks.  Just one of the 38 hits he allowed for Rome left the park.  In the middle of Jones’s 21 appearances, the Braves challenged the 20-year-old with a brief stint in High-A Myrtle Beach, where he struggled in one start and four relief appearances (13 earned runs on 10 hits and 14 walks in 7.2 innings) before resuming his dominance in the Rome bullpen.

When Texas and Atlanta zeroed in on the Teixeira trade last July, Rangers general manager Jon Daniels insisted that the Braves tack Jones onto the deal at the last minute when it was discovered that Harrison was suffering from turf toe.  Atlanta agreed, and Texas decided to keep Jones in Low Class A but to give him another look as a starter.  The results were exciting.  Jones went 4-1, 2.70 for Clinton in six starts and one relief appearance, issuing 12 walks and fanning 29 in 26.2 innings.  

However, following the season, Jones was held out of Fall Instructional League and had surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow.  He was nonetheless ready to go when the 2008 season got underway, and Texas assigned him to High Class A Bakersfield.  What followed was fascinating.

In four Blaze starts, Jones went 1-3, 5.30, giving up 22 hits and nine walks in 18.2 innings.  The organization then shut him down for six weeks with what was reported as biceps tendinitis, and upon his return three weeks ago, he was asked to move to the bullpen.  In his five relief appearances, Jones has an ERA of 0.77.  He has scattered seven hits and just two walks in 11.2 innings.  His strikeout rate and groundball rate are slightly better than they were as a Blaze starter.  Right-handed and left-handed hitters have been equally inept against him.

And then there’s this: Even though Jones struggled in his four Bakersfield starts in April, he was brilliant at the beginning of the game, giving up one hit and one walk in his four first innings, fanning two.  Could it be indicative of a pitcher best suited to pitch in late relief, a guy who is at his best right out of the gate, during his first run at an opposing lineup?  

It’s not often that you peg a power arm, especially one belonging to a lefthander, as a future reliever.  The Padres and Rangers didn’t do it with Williams, and the Braves and Rangers haven’t done it with Jones.  But when Williams was converted for good to a bullpen role, he went from a minor league curiosity to a big league All-Star.  Perhaps a set-up role is where Jones is most suited to produce. 

 

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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