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Assessing the 1980 Blue Jays drafts

It yielded them nothing. Zip. Nada. Literally not a single major leaguer.

New York Mets Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

As I wrote two years ago on its the 40th anniversary, the 1980 MLB Draft represents one f the biggest “what-ifs” in Toronto Blue Jays history. In 1979, two teams lost 100 games, with the Jays in the AL East at 53-109 edging out the Athletics in the AL West at 54-108 in terms of futility. No other team lost 100 games, with the Mets the next worst at 63-99 but still 10 games clear of the Jays.

Today, that would mean the Jays would get the first pick the next year. But until about 20 years, while the draft was still ordered by reverse standings, it was done by league with the picks alternating back-and-forth. And in 1980, it was the NL’s turn to pick first. Thus it is how the Jays have twice finished with the worst record in baseball and yet have never had the first overall pick in the MLB Draft.

And that little detail really mattered. As the Toronto Star previewed the day of the draft, it was “a thin year”, but there was one can’t-miss phenom considered the overwhelming consensus first overall pick, an outfielder from Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles by the name of Darryl Strawberry. The Jays downplayed their interest in him, but they almost certainly would have taken him, because their other options were...lacking.

And for all his later issues and short-lived prime, Strawberry more than lived up to the billing with a ~40 WAR career. More significantly for the draft implications, it was very frontloaded with ~30 WAR of that production coming in his control years as he was an impact player immediately in winning the 1983 Rookie-of-the-Year and an absolute force from 1985-91 (147 wRC+ and 228 home runs).

June Draft

Drafted/signed: 25/17 (68%)

High school/college/other: 9/14/2 (5/12/0 signed)

Pitcher/position player: 12/13 (7/12 and 10/13 signed)

1980 June signed

While the first two picks were once again high schoolers, the rest of the draft skewed uncharacteristically heavy to the collegiate ranks, reflecting Pat Gillick’s assessment that it was a very thin draft beyond the first couple rounds. The other three prep signees never advanced beyond A-ball, with the last essentially a courtesy pick with Will Goffena being the brother of 1977 first rounder Tom.

I discussed Garry Harris in detail in the piece linked above, but in short the attraction of him and second rounder Ken Kinnard was the athletic ability with Gillick quoted as saying he got the two best athletes in the draft. But as has been the common refrain with many of these picks so far (Ainge, Robertson), the hit tool never developed. It’s an example of the perils of drafting for raw tools over baseball skills.

Kinnard topped out in Double-A (save one AAA plate appearance over two games in 1985), but had modestly more success. He was actually added to the 40-man roster after posting a .724 OPA for Florence in 1982, the only member of the class to even technically make the majors (Tom Lukish was a non-roster invite to Spring Training in 1983). He was removed after regressed to .638 OPS the following season.

Of the 17 signees, just six even reached the upper levels of the minors, and over half were out of the organization by the beginning of the 1982 season.

Notable unsigned: none

1980 June unsigned corrected

The eight unsigned players unsurprisingly were skewed towards high school draftees, but none were major leaguers though four had subsequent professional careers. Doug Scherer was acquired from Oakland in a minor January 1988 trade and he pitched that season for AA Knoxville. The Jays liked Thomas Penney enough to draft him a third time, but it was not third time lucky and he again went unsigned.

Other Drafts

1980 other drafts

While the NL got the first pick in the June draft, the AL had the consolation prize of the first overall pick of the January draft. First overall, the Jays took a strapping 6’6” right handed pitcher in Colin McLaughlin from the University of Connecticut. In 1979 he went 12-3 with a 2.30 ERA leading UConn to the College World Series, before dropping out to make himself eligible for the 1980 January draft. The deal was worked out ahead of time (including an invitation to Spring Training), as he was signed and introduced the same day of the draft.

Control issued prevented a hoped-for rapid ascent, as he walked 70 in 102 innings with Kinston and then 130 in 147 innings split between AA and AAA in 1981. By 1984, he ended up in the bullpen, and spent the next five years mostly at Syracuse. Despite being added to the 40-man in four separate offseasons, he never could crack that last glass ceiling and make the majors. After 1988, he was left unprotected and was one of five Jays taken in the Rule 5 draft, fourth overall by Seattle. He failed to crack their roster in 1989, but the Jays didn’t even bother taking him back for $25,000 and he pitched one last minor league season with Seattle.

McLaughlin was the only one of the six January draftees or three secondary draftees to sign. Unsigned second rounder Roger Samuels is notable in that he’s the only player drafted at all in 1980 who made the major leagues, working 20 NL games in short relief in 1988-89 (4.33 ERA, sub-replacement level).


1980 drafts summary

Other players available: It was not a good draft class after Strawberry, with seven of 26 first rounders failing to make the majors at all (including three of the top five). Another 10 were replacement level of worse, so almost two-thirds were complete busts. Only four first rounders had careers or 10+ WAR, with best available to the Jays being Kelly Gruber who went 10th overall to Cleveland. There are actually myriad connections between the Jays and the 1980 draft beyond him, which I further elaborate (the complement to the Strawberry piece I never got around to in 2020).

Overall assessment/grade: F. It was a tough year, but as always there was still talent available and the Jays had the second overall pick plus a second very good pick 28th overall. And they got nothing. Literally not a single major league plate appearance or inning. That is an abject failure, and coupled with a similarly dismal showing in 1979 part of the reason for the franchise’s post-1985 swoon.

Last Blue Jays connection to the 1980 draft year: RHP Dennis Howard reached the upper levels of the system, the only June draftee to make it to 1986 in the organization before departing (presumably as a six-year free agent). But it was the lone signee from January in McLaughlin who was the last survivor, plucked by the Mariners in the 1988 Rule 5 Draft after just shy of nine years in the organization.