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25 years ago, the end of a Blue Jays era

Spring Training Dunedin

As Spring Training 1993 got underway 25 years ago in Dunedin, the Blue Jays were in a novel position as defending World Series champions. If you’re not aware of the 1993 Real Time Blue Jays twitter feed, documenting the winter and season as it happened it’s definitely worth checking out (if only for Dave Perkins trenchant analysis that Kelly Gruber “looks dumb“ or for Marty York being trolled in letters run by his own newspaper).

While the Jays had finally reached the mountaintop, and would of course go on to repeat, a major page in franchise history had been turned. 12 players from the 1992 World Series team hit free agency after the season, including many long-time stalwarts. Joe Carter, Alfredo Griffin and Mark Eichhorn returned, but most did not. Gone were franchise icons Dave Stieb (14 years), Jimmy Key (9 years), and Tom Henke (8 years). So too were Rance Mulliniks (11 years) Manuel Lee (8 years). Davids Winfield and Cone lacked the tenure, but were impact losses.

But it was also the end of an era in another significant respect. For the first time in franchise history, there were no remaining roster ties to the original Expansion Blue Jays.

On November 5, 1976, the American League held its third expansion draft to stock its newest two teams with 30 players each (though the Blue Jays had already acquired their first player two weeks earlier in a trade, Phil Roof). Many of these players did not last very long: on the second anniversary of the draft, just 18 of the 30 players were still in the organization (two more departed by the time 1978 ended).

By the 5th anniversary of the draft in 1981, only six of those “original” Blue Jays remained, an 80% attrition rate. Extrapolating that rate, one would expect that after 10 years, there were be just one. And sure enough, with Ernie Whitt and Jim Clancy declaring free agency in November 1986, only Garth Iorg remained.

The winter of 1986 marked the middle of the collusion years, so instead of finding a receptive market as veteran players and potentially going elsewhere, Whitt and Clancy were frozen out. In early January they (reluctantly) ended up re-signing . And thus when Iorg departed after 1987, the chain back to the expansion draft remained.

Clancy left after 1988, signing with Houston as a “second look“ free agent, one of the remedies granted as a result of collusion. Whitt too was eligible, but opted against, remaining in the fold until the following winter when he was traded to Atlanta in December 1989. With that, the last direct link to the Expansion Blue Jays was severed.

But that was not completely the end of the expansion era ties. Here at Bluebird Banter, we have the Blue Jays Roster Tree, which tracks transaction links between the current roster and previous previous players (in 2014, Grantland looked at the longest chain for each team, which is really neat). The Jays longest chain starts with Kelvim Escobar’s signing in 1992, now in its 26th year. But I was curious about the opposite, the extent to which the transaction tree from the expansion draftees carried forward.

With the 15th overall pick of the draft (their 8th pick), the Blue Jays selected Al Woods from the Minnesota Twins, an outfielder who had yet to make his MLB debut. He homered in the inaugural 9-5 win against the White Sox, and played another 594 games over the next six years, putting up a .271/.326/.387 line and 1.9 WAR. On the 6th anniversary of being selected, he was traded to Oakland for Cliff Johnson, who was a very productive DH for two years.

Johnson was a free agent after 1984, and signed a two year deal with Texas. That would have seemingly ending the chain that started with Woods. Except Johnson was a Type A free agent, and in those early days of free agency, that meant the team that lost the player got to select a player from a compensation pool of players. Though they were not limited to choosing from the team that signed the player, the Jays ended up taking a player from Texas, a pitcher by the name of Tom Henke.

Heading into the 1985 season, the Blue Jays made a concerted effort to improve the bullpen, trading for Bill Caudill and Gary Lavelle and signing them to big money extensions. That backfired spectacularly, but fortunately Henke seized the closers role and held onto it for the next seven seasons through 1992. But then he signed with Texas (ironically, Johnson was traded back to the Jays in 1986).

That wasn’t actually the end the chain, since Henke was a Type A free agent and the Jays received two draft picks in the 1993 draft, one of which was used on Chris Carpenter. But in Spring Training 1993, that was still in the future, and the chain was for the time disrupted.

With the 26th pick leading off the 3rd round, the Blue Jays chose LHP Dennis DeBarr from the Tigers. He would be merely a footnote in Blue Jays history, appearing in just five games in 1977, but in March 1978 was traded to Oakland for the Beeg Mon, Rico Carty. He too was chosen in the Expansion Draft, but traded back to Cleveland a month later that spawned a separate, sprawling transaction tree (the Jays had a real thing for Beeg Mon, acquiring him four separate times in their first 30 months of existence).

Anyway, five month later Carty was flipped to Oakland for Willie Horton and Phil Huffman. Horton was disappointing in 1979 at the end of his career, and Huffman went an ignominious 6-18 with a 5.77 ERA in 31 starts, never again to pitch for the Jays. This would appear to have ended the DeBarr chain.

Except Huffman toiled away for two more seasons in the minor leagues, and then in the March 1982 was flipped to the Royals for Rance Mulliniks, who had failed to establish himself in parts of five seasons and was presumably out-of-options and not going to crack the roster. He didn’t distinguish himself in 1982, but took off in 1983 and became a productive fixture in the 1980s as part of the Mullinorg platoon.

A three year extension in 1987 and a two year free agent deal in 1990 kept him in Toronto for a total of 11 years, through that 1992 season. That turned out to the end of the line for Mulliniks, and at least for a few years, the end of any roster ties to the Expansion Blue Jays.