Another dismal season in 1978 at 59-102 once again positioned the Toronto Blue Jays for high draft picks in 1979. It was the AL’s turn to pick first, but the Blue Jays’ modest five game improvement coupled with the Mariners’ eight game regression to 56 wins leapfrogged them and bumped the Jays to third. After selecting three future cornerstones in those first two drafts, 1979 was not to prove as fruitful.
Despite adding a second low-A team in Kinston to the farm system, for the second time in three years, the Jays were the first team to stop drafting. They made their last pick in the 20th round, three rounds before the Red Sox dropped out. Of note, two picks before the Jays made their last pick in that 20th round, Seattle took some guy named Tom Henke (though he wouldn’t sign until the next year).
Drafted/signed: 20/15 (75%)
High school/college/other: 9/10/1 (5/9/1 signed)
Pitcher/position player: 11/9 (8/11 and 7/9 signed)
Pat Gillick loved pure athletes, as evidenced by the Danny Ainge gambit in 1977. In 1979, he used the third overall pick on a dual football/baseball star in Jay Schroeder from Pacific Palisades High School in California who was committed to play both sports at UCLA. Despite a bonus over $100,000 (at the top end of the time), they allowed him to pursue football at UCLA and play baseball in between.
Thus Schroeder didn’t play in the summer of 1979 as he prepared for freshmen foot ball camp, debuting as an outfielder in 1980 with Medicine Hat (leaving early to return for his sophomore season). He came off the bench late that season and led UCLA to a win over archrival USC, but in January after the season left UCLA to pursue baseball full time.
The bat never came around, even in A-ball. The Jays tried converting him back to catcher (a position he played in high school), but that didn’t really take. After 1983, Gillick wanted him to try pitching, but that was a non-starter for Schroeder and was the final push to quit baseball with the upstart USFL expressing interest. He ended up drafted in the fourth round of the 1984 NFL draft, and played nine seasons (including throwing five interceptions in a blowout 51-3 loss to Buffalo in the 1990 AFC championship).
Ron Shepherd was a toolsy high school outfielder from Texas whose best tool was his speed. He never hit at all, plagued by a high strikeout rate that would be elevated in today’s much more permissive era but would have been astronomical at the time. He had a brief career as a bench player from 1984-86 before being released in 1987 and moving on to Montreal’s system.
Their fourth round choice was infielder Andre Robertson from the University of Texas. He bypassed short season, assigned directly to low-A Dunedin, where he posted an .216/.266/.307 batting line. That December, the Jays sold his rights to the Yankees, with whom he enjoyed a modest career as a light-hitting (career 69 wRC+) reserve infielder from 1981-85. Even that makes him one of the more successful draftees from this class. Curiously, 1985 was his best year with the bat, but he never again played in the majors.
None of the selections beyond this made the majors, or even came particularly close. Fifth round pick Keith Walker was a non-roster invitee to 1981 Spring Training.
For the second time in their three June drafts, a top 100 player went unsigned. In the third round, the Jays chose Ron Romanick, a high school pitcher from Washington. He instead attended Arizona State, signing with California two years later. He debuted in 1984, finishing 7th in rookie-of-the-year voting in posting a 3.76 ERA in 33 starts and 229.2 innings. He could not sustain it, regressing to 4.11 ERA in 195 innings in 1985 and 5.50 ERA in 106 innings in the fist half of 1986, which was the end of his MLB career. He’s had a long coaching career with Seattle, Oakland, and for the past decade the Mets.
One other unsigned high school player made the majors, pitcher Jeff Robinson. Redrafted by Detroit in 1983, he pitched 708.2 innings from 1987-92 as a journeyman backend starter (4.79 career era). Of the other three unsigned players, two had short minor league careers.
Mark Eichhorn was a shortstop at Cabrillo College in California with a D1 scholarship to San Jose State. The Jays liked his arm, drafting him with the intention of converting him to pitching. It took right away, as he ascended through the system with what was called the best fastball velocity in the organization and debuted as a September call-up in 1982.
Unfortunately, he regressed in 1983, performing poorly as he didn’t have the same fastball velocity. Outrighted off the 40-man in early 1984, he reinvented himself as a sidearmer, making it back in 1986 and famously turning in one of the greatest relief seasons in franchise history with a 1.72 ERA in 157 innings (one of the few bright spots in an otherwise very disappointing season). He was solid in 1987, but the workload seemingly caught up to him in 1988 and he ended up back in the minors.
Unsigned January pick Jeff Moronko had a couple brief seven game cups of coffee in the majors in 1984 (Cleveland) and 1987 (NYY).
Other players available: 1979 was not a banner draft year at the top, with six of the top 10 picks and 18 of the 26 first rounders producing little or no major league value. That said, the Jays did miss on two very good players near the top who had ~40 WAR careeirs n Andy van Slyke (6th overall to St. Louis) and Tim Wallach (10th overall to Montreal). The second round had almost no value whatsoever.
Overall assessment/grade: C-. They whiffed on a premium pick at the very top, and got almost no value from the entire June draft, which represents a significant failure. The grade is kept from going lower into the “D” range by getting value with Eichhorn in January, and the relative paucity of quality big leaguers making for a fewer targets to hit in the first.
Last Blue Jays connection to the 1979 draft year: Shepherd was released in March 1987, the last connection to the June draft. Eichhorn’s post 1985 regression and injury issues left him squeezed out of the bullpen plans at the end of Spring Training 1989, at which point his former skipper Bobby Cox scooped up yet another of his former charges in a cash transaction. But it would be the next year with California that he resurrected his career, eventually making his way back for the 1992 stretch run and re-signing as a free agent for 1993 to earn a pair of WS rings.