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Assessing the 1978 Blue Jays drafts classes

A high school outfielder from Oakland and an Illinois college outfielder made this class

Kansas City Royals v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

By 1978, the Toronto Blue Jays had established a veritable farm system. The full season affiliations were not completely built out, but Syracuse was lured away from the Yankees to serve as a the Triple-A post, and the first Dunedin team was fielded in the Florida State League for 1977 short season graduates. At the lower rungs, another short season team was established to Medicine Hat to join Utica thereby increasing capacity to bring more anateur talent into the organization.

Meanwhile, as a result of their major league worst 54-107 finish in 1977, the Blue Jays had moved from picking second last to second (the AL and NL rotated picks and it was the NL’s years to pick first). Not only would the Jays have their pick of the talent, but with plenty of time to prepare the bar for success was accordingly much higher.

June Draft

Drafted/signed: 25/17 (68%)

High school/college/other: 16/7/2 (11/4/2 signed)

Pitcher/position player: 12/13* (13/12 with Stieb as pitcher) (6/12 and 11/13 signed)

1978 June signed

Second overall, the Blue Jays took a toolsy high school outfielder from Oakland, having made the decision days before the draft and flown him out to Toronto to sign within minutes of the selection. A noted basketball player, Moseby turned down college scholarships to play basketball and baseball, choosing baseball because of the upfront money (a $55,000 bonus per Baseball America’s database) as his father had been injured in an farm accident.

Pat Gillick told the Globe and Mail he would have taken even if #1 pick Bob Horner had been available, and Bobby Mattick said he had more power than Frank Robinson when he signed him out of high school in Oakland. Moseby didn’t quite end up living up to that, but nonetheless more than lived up to the lofty pick. A rapid ascent through the system got him to the majors at age 21 in 1980. He struggled at the plate for a couple years until breaking out spectacularly in 1983,posting another 5 WAR season in 1984. That proved to be his peak, and he was never the same player after that, but a solid regular for the rest of his 20s and 1980s.

The Jays’ approach was very high school/upside oriented, with seven of their top eight picks from the prep ranks. The downside to that demographic is high risk and a high bust rate, and that proved to be the case as none of them had major league impact. Second rounder Tim Thompson was added to the 40-man roster after a strong 1982 season at AA Knoxville, but regressed and was removed the following winter. Mike Cuellar was the son of the long-time big leaguer of the same name, but didn’t win 20 games four times.

The particularly notable name among them is Brian Milner, He was considered a high first round talent (Gillick likening him to Johnny Bench out of high school) but had a strong commitment to baseball powerhouse Arizona State, which caused teams to pass. The Jays nonetheless took a flyer in the seventh round, and convinced him to sign with plenty of money ($155,000 bonus plus paying for education) and the ultimate selling point, putting him right on the major league roster.

The Blue Jays had on open spot with Rick Bosetti injured, and thus it was that debuted at age 18 on June 23, 1978 and recording one hit. He started three days later in the infamous 24-10 pasting of Baltimore, adding three moe hits. When Bosetti was back, he went to Medicine Hat to start the climb up the ranks. Alas, he was derailed by injuries and ended up out of baseball by age 23. But he’ll always have that .444 major league mark.

The lone exception to the run of high schoolers was an outfielder from Southern Illinois University, a transplant from California named Dave Stieb. Due to his strong arm, he’d be used occasionally to pitch, and the legend goes that Bobby Mattick and Al LaMacchia went to take a look at him and were unimpressed at Stieb the outfielder, but were blown away when he came in to pitch the 6th inning. He was drafted as an outfielder, but with the intention of him being a pitcher. By 1979, he was a full-time pitcher, and later that season was in the majors for good. The rest, as they say, is history.

The only other player from the draft class to make the majors was Dave Baker, a brief call-up in 1982 who was traded after the season for Don Cooper.

Notable unsigned: none

Unlike in 1977, they signed most of the players they were serious about. The highest unsigned player was LHP Tom Stauffer in the 9th round from a Pennsylvania high school, who did not play professionally. The last five players went unsigned, presumably flyers (four high schoolers); only one subsequently played in the minors. No unsigned players made the majors.

Other Drafts

1978 other drafts

As in 1977, the Jays made four selections in the January draft, but this time signed three. With the first overall pick, they took catcher Mike Lebo. He had committed to play at the University of South Carolina, but head coach and former big leaguer Bobby Richardson resigned to run for Congress and new coach June Raines brought in a juco transfer to start.

Lebo left the program in May 1977 at the end of his first season, making him a top talent eligible for the January draft (a Mets scout quoted in the Globe and Mail called him “without question the best player available in the country”). Negotiations hit a snag when the Jays were apparently offering less than $20,000 compared to a request between $50,000 and $100,000 prompting Lebo to enroll at DeKalb JC in Georgia, but by April 6th the deal was done and Petralli tripled in his first game that evening.

At 6’4”, Lebo was well above the size of the prototypical catcher, but with outsized power potential as well. Alas, after a strong season with Utica in 1978, Lebo stalled out in A ball. After 1981, he was traded to the Yankees for veteran journeyman Aurelio Rodriguez, spending one year with them in low-A before his career ended.

Instead, the better player ended up being third rounder Geno Petralli, one of the first in the lines of catchers of the future. Signed in May right before the deadline, he played for Medicine Hat and then was a late addition to Spring Training in 1979 as Milner recovered from surgery. After a solid Double-A season in 1980, he was added to the 40-man roster after the season.

He spent the next three seasons optioned in Syracuse, debuting as a September call-up in 1982. Out-of-options in 1983, he stuck with the big league team but played sporadically, and in May was traded to Cleveland in exchange for the right to retain Rule 5 draftee Kelly Gruber. That ended up working out nicely for the Jays, especially since Cleveland released Petralli the next year. He caught on with Texas, and went on to a nice big league career over the next nine seasons.

There’s a few other interesting notes on the remaining picks. The other signee, Mike Kelly, was the brother of a catcher they had just acquired, Pat Kelly (who eventually managed Syracuse and whose son also briefly played for Toronto). The unsigned player Mike Richardt, made the majors, accruing 618 PA as a light hitting infielder. In the secondary phase, Rob Hertel was UCLA’s quarterback (and I’d assume the brother of 1977 5th rounder Richard Hertel also out of UCLA). He was drafted by the Bengals in the 5th round of the NFL draft and had a brief NBA career. James Glenn (erroneously listed as Simon Glenn by Baseball-Reference) was the guy they wanted in the January 1977 draft, but once again did not sign (it would take being drafted a sixth time by the Red Sox in 1980).


1978 drafts summary

Overall assessment/grade: At least a straight A. They hit on their premium pick at the top to find a solid regular, and then added a borderline Hall of Famer for good measure further down. Petralli adds another complementary player, albeit not in the main June phase. Whether that rises to the level of an A+ grade would depends on how strictly one wants to define that, and require a much broader study of historical context, so I’m reticent to go that far.

Other players available: Moseby was essentially as good as it got at the top of the draft. The one player not available to them was Bob Horner, who had a solid ~20 WAR career. Only four first rounders posted more than 15 career WAR. 4th overall pick Mike Morgan (later acquired by the Jays) had a ~25 WAR career, but most of that came after kicking around multiple teams. Kirk Gibson has a ~35 WAR career at 12th overall for his hometown Tigers, but was a star on Michigan State’s football and intended to play that fall.

Of course, the real prize in 1978 was a shortstop out of Aberdeen HS in Maryland by the name of Cal Ripken Jr., who went late in the second round to his hometown Orioles.

Last Blue Jays connection to the 1978 draft year: In December 1992, the Jays traded Gruber/dumped his contract to Angels, acquiring Luis Sojo. He became a free agent in October 1993, outlasting by one year Dave Stieb who became a free agent after 1992 when his career was effectively over. Of course, he briefly returned in 1999 after coming to Spring Training as a minor league instructor which is indelibly linked to having been drafted and associated with the franchise for such a long time.