1980 was another tough season for the Toronto Blue Jays, although they avoided losing 100 games at 67-95 for the first time in Bobby Mattick’s first season at the helm. That represented a substantial 14 game improvement, but still left them a dozen games behind Cleveland for sixth place in the gauntlet of that year’s AL East.
The third worst record in the American League entitled them to the 5th overall pick in 1981, on one hand their lowest earned pick and yet still a premium pick. In addition, the previous winter they lost their first free agent, with an embittered Roy Howell decamping for Milwaukee. Having been selected by enough teams in the free agent re-entry draft, the Jays were entitled to compensation and received Milwaukee’s first round pick, 21st overall. That gave them three picks of the first 31 (and five of the first 82). It should have positioned them for a haul to set them up for the futue.
Drafted/signed: 18/25 (72%)
High school/college/other: 7/17/1 (3/14/1 signed)
Pitcher/position player: 14/11 (10/14 and 8/11 signed)
At the outset, it’s worth noting a notable shift in strategy. Their first four drafts were ver high school heavy at the top. That included all their top picks, who also skewed to position players. That changed dramatically in 1981, with the top four picks coming from the college ranks (and eight of 11 in the top-10 rounds). Three of those including the top two were pitchers.
Fifth overall, they took Matt Williams. No, not that Matt Williams, the slugging third baseman with a 17 year career who went third overall a few years later to San Francisco. This Matt Williams was a pitcher from Rice University who went 8-4 with a 2.25 ERA and 122 strikeouts in 123 innings. Like many pitchers drafted highly from Rice to follow, Williams ended up a disappointment.
After a solid low-A debut, he went directly to Double-A in 1982 and was just solid (4.28 ERA with 107/157 K/BB in 193 innings). He posted a 3.41 ERA in 148 innings at Syracuse in 1983, earning a brief call-upand debut for the Jays that didn’t go well. He spun his heels in Syracuse for most of the next two years, before being one of three players moved to Texas in August 1985 for Cliff Johnson as the Jays geared up for the “Drive for ‘85” stretch run. Frankly, just taking on his contract should have been enough, but Williams’ last season in baseball proved to be 1986.
Their pick at the end of the first round proved to be better value, a lefty out of Amherst College who majored in math and economics. It took John Cerutti awhile to break into the rotation, called up at the end of 1985 and working as a swingman for 1986-87 throwing about 150 innings. In 1988, he improved to a 3.13 ERA, and finally earning the long awaited shot at the rotation for 1989.
He broke out with a 3.07 ERA in 205.1 innings, an important cog as the Jays won the AL East. But he regressed in a disappointing 1990 to 4.76 ERA, losing his spot in the rotation to his frustrating. No longer figuring in their starting plans, and getting increasingly expensive in arbitration, the Jays agreed to let him pursue an opportunity to start elsewhere. Thus he became the first player to be non-tendered in franchise history, signed for about $1-million in Detroit. In 2008, Tom ranked him 43rd in team history to that point, though he’s since been superseded in the passage of time.
After that, they didn’t get much. The only other major leaguer was Stan Clarke, who came up a few times in 1983 and 1985-86 (6.18 ERA in 27.2 IP) before departing to the Mariners in the Rule 5 Draft. Only two others reached Triple-A, including catcher Mark Poole who was a non-roster invite to Spring Training in 1983. They took a different catcher, Bill Pinkham, 31st overall from the University of San Diego who topped out in AA. That’s notable mostly in that whomever was scouting collegiate ranks around San Diego that year missed a guy who ended up an okay hitter by the name of Tony Gwynn.
Notable unsigned: none
The two unsigned picks in the top-10 rounds did eventually make the majors, albeit without any impact. Jeff Kaiser was drafted the following year by Oakland, He reached the majors in 1985, and had brief cups of coffee in seven seasons until 1993 totaling just 52 innings and amounting to a 9.17 ERA.
Their high school pick, Alan Cockrell, was selected 9th overall from the University of Tennessee three years later by San Francisco, so not signing was clearly the right decision. But he too got just brief cup of coffee as a September call-up in 1996 with Colorado, the coda of a dozen year professional career.
Three of the other five were subsequently redrafted and had pro careers, but the most notable is one who didn’t. Their 22nd round pick was that Jack Del Rio, a three sport high school star in California who was committed to play baseball and football at USC. He was a catcher for two years on baseball tams that included Randy Johnson, but the greater impact was as a four year starter on the gridiron after which he was a third round draft pick. He went on to 10 year playing career before moving into the coaching ranks for the last 25 years including 10 years as headcoach in Jacksonville and Oakland.
The Blue Jays were unusually active in the January drafts, drafting 13 players between the two phases. It wasn’t just for show either, as they signed eight of them which was a higher total than the six they had signed in their first four January drafts. Alas, none of them worked out with some not even reaching full-season, and only one advancing beyond that to AA.
One of the draftees who didn’t sign had a familiar name, with Dave Eichhorn (Mark’s brother) also from Cabrillo College. The Jays took him again in June in the secondary draft, though he didn’t sign either. They did sign one player with their first pick, an infielder from Georgia Perimeter Institute (now Georgeia State College) who would in time make the majors and have a decent career. We’ll come back to him below.
Other players available: The first three players all posted at least ~20 WAR, with Joe Carter being of particular note at 2nd overall (Dick Schofield later played for the Jays too). They missed on Kevin McReynolds (~30 WAR) 6th overall, and if they wanted a college pitcher Ron Darling (~20 WAR) went 9th overall. There wasn’t much depth after that, with no first rounder after that attaining 10 WAR. There were still plenty of talent available, with in particular Frank Viola and Mark Langton (~50 WAR careers) going shortly after the Jays picked in the second round. Tony Gwynn went right after the Jays third round pick, with David Cone and Sid Fernandez later in the round.
Overall assessment/grade: D+. Cerutti represented a solid outcome for the 21st overall pick, but once again they whiffed at the top. They failed to get any value beyond that, though did find one other useful complementary player in Sharperson. All in all though, not nearly enough for the picks they had. Especially with a shift to the collegiate ranks and pitching, they missed a lot of guys and talent.
Last Blue Jays connection to the 1981 draft year: In September 1987, the jays traded Sharperson to the Dodgers for a late bloomer named Juan Guzman. Despite exposing him to the Rule 5 Draft a couple times, they managed to not lose him before he was a critical factor in the early-1990s breakthrough from contender to champion. Tom ranked him 19th earlier this year, he’s the best playoff pitcher in Blue Jays history, and he won an ERA title in 1996. At the trade deadline in 1998, he went to Baltimore for Nerio Rodriguez (because he had shutdown the Jays earlier that month). He was lost on waivers in March 2000, but a minor league throw-on named Shannon Carter remained in the system through the end of the 2003 season, more than 22 years later.
The last connection to the main draft was Cerutti, lasting 7.5 years until departing after 1990. He pitched one year for Detroit before retiring and eventually ending up broadcasting the Jays for the CBC and then Sportsnet. He passed away before the last game of the 2004 season. In that sense, he represents the latest indirect connection to the 1981 draft.