For the third time in their five years, the Toronto Blue Jays finished with the worst record in baseball in 1981. But once again it came in an odd numbered year, meaning that the National League had the first pick in the subsequent year’s draft. 1981 was the year of the two month strike, and it was truly a tale of two seasons. In the first half, the Jays went an abysmal 16-42, progressing to a respectable 21-27 in the second half (which nonetheless left them in the cellar).
For the first time, the Jays were not among the first half of teams to drop out of the June draft. 16 teams were still going when they led off the 32nd round, but just 11 made picks in that round and were still drafting when the Jays passed in the 33rd. That didn’t translate to more players entering the system, with the 18 signed in line with previous years as the team’s signing rate fell below 65% for the first time.
Drafted/signed: 32/18 (56%)
High school/college/other: 7/23/2 (2/16/0 signed)
Pitcher/position player: 12/20 (6/12 and 12/20 signed)
For the second straight year, the Jays stayed in the collegiate ranks with their top pick, selecting shortstop Augie Schmidt from a smaller program, the University of New Orleans where he had hit .342 over three years and played for the USA College National team. That jumped to .372 his draft year, with 73 walks against 17 strikeouts, so it was firmly against the raw tools archetype they had pursue in earlier years. Later in the year he would win the Golden Spikes Award as the top collegiate player.
Schmidt had a solid debut in low-A, but the hit tool didn’t carry over to the upper levels. He went right to AA Knoxville in 1983 but hit only a pedestrian .266/.339/.357 and after regressing further to a .607 OPS the next year at Syracuse was packaged to San Francisco for reliever Gary Lavelle, but Schmidt only played two more seasons. For the fourth straight year, Gillick and the Jays blew a top-five pick.
Fortunately, they salvaged the 1982 class with their next two picks. From Point Loma HS in San Diego they grabbed David Wells, who was still pitching 25 years later. His ascent up the system was slow, missing all of 1985 after being the third player to have Tommy John surgery. By 1989 he had established himself in the bullpen, and then moved into the rotation mid-season in 1990 where he posted a couple good years.
But he regressed in 1992, and combined with off-field proclivities resulted in the Jays releasing him outright on the eve of the 1993 season. There were only another 2,750 MLB innings left in his left arm, including an even more successful second act in Toronto. Combined, that left him as the 21st greatest Blue Jay in Tom’s estimation.
Starting off the second day, the Jays made arguably an even more impactful pick, nabbing Jimmy Key from the University of Alabama. He moved quickly through the system, and was ticketed to go back to Triple-A to start 1984 but a strong spring training caused the Jays to change their mind on the eve of the season and they kept him in the bullpen. In 1985 he moved into the rotation, and was a fixture for the next eight years, plus another four productive seasons after in New York and Baltimore.
That meant his control years only extended through 1989, but service time wasn’t a huge factor it was today and he signed an extension that kept him through 1992. Today, he’d have have been held down for a couple weeks and his control would extend through 1990 (which was his worst with his the Jays anyway), so in a sense for contemporary comparisons that should be included in control. Tom ranked him as the 7th greatest Blue Jay.
The final significant big leaguer was a high school third baseman from Lake Wales HS in Florida, not far from Dunedin. Like Wells, it took him a while to reach the majors due to a meandering path involving a conversion to catcher. Nonetheless, he stuck in the majors from 1988, and a couple years later displaced icon Ernie Whitt as the primary starter.
Other than a career year in 1990, he never hit much, but his main responsibility was catching veteran staffs. And of course he was the 1992 World Series MVP and stuck around forever as veteran catchers tend to do. He wasn’t an impact player and his career WAR was quite modest, but finding a player who lasts as long as he does is a win-draft wise. At one time ranked the 54th greatest Jay, he’s since slipped but remains the third most significant backstop in franchise history behind his predecessor Whitt and now Russell Martin.
Impressively, the Blue Jays identified four future big leaguers that they couldn’t sign. Ed Vosberg was a late-blooming lefty who finally carved out a bullpen role in the mid/late-1990s in his 30s. Ron Jones has a few solid years as a bench player with the Phillies. But the best career belonged to Mike Henneman, who had a very good 10-year career as a reliever from 1987-96, mostly with Detroit.
The Jays were once again very active in the January drafts in making 17 selections, with 14 in the regular phase and three in the secondary phase. Unlike in 1981, they only signed their top two picks as well as the top pick in the secondary phase. Curiously, most of the selections never played further professionally.
James “Kash” Beauchamp Jr. was the first overall pick in January, the son of longtime big league outfielder Jim Beauchamp who had just been hired by the team to manage AAA Syracuse. He signed after the junior college season right before the deadline in late-May. He was added to the 40-man after a decent 1984 season in low-A, but dropped after 1985. He apparently just missed a big leagues in 1986, injured in a collision at home plate in late-May the day before he was to be called up. His father had followed Bobby Cox to Atlanta, and in early 1988 the Jays sold them his rights where he was managed by the elder Beauchamp.
Of the unsigned players, the highest was Ken Jackson in the third round out of Angelina College in Texas, who was re-drafted that June by the Phillies in the first round of the secondary phase. He received a brief cup of coffee with them in 1987.
Other players available: The Cubs took Shawon Dunston first overall, and while he had a decent and lengthy career, it was not Strawberry redux. The big miss was Dwight Gooden, who went 5th overall to the Mets, who not only posted 50 WAR career, but very frontloaded (~30 WAR in control years). Add him to the 1985 Jays and it’s hard not to see them romping to a title. What particularly makes it a miss is that he was drafted from Hillsborough HS in Tampa, literally right in the Jays’ backyard.
There were a few decent careers among other first rounders (including Duane Ward), but the real heavy hitters came a little later. Barry Bonds and Larkin were second rounders; Randy Johnson and Will Clark went back-to-back in the 4th. But none of them signed, nor did Rafael Palmeiro in the 8th round or B.J. Surhoff in the 6th. Add those to Gooden and Wells, and the 1982 high school was truly one for the ages. Of those who signed, the Jays got the best players taken in the second or third rounds.
Overall assessment/grade: A-. While they once again whiffed at the top with a premium pick, getting two “Hall of Very Good” pitchers is more than a good draft. Had Key instead been picked in that spot his career and Blue Jays tenure would more than have lived up to that billing, with Wells and Borders as excellent kickers to the class. The only caveat that keeps it from a straight A grade is that Wells’ career was quite backloaded, with as much value in his 40s (825 IP, ~10 WAR) as his 20s (687 IP, ~7 WAR).
Last Blue Jays connection to the 1982 draft year: Borders was granted free agency after the 1994 season, twelve-and-a-half years after the draft, but the last connection is through Key. The Blue Jays received a compensation pick when he signed departed for the Yankees as a free agent after 1992. They drafted LHP Mark Lukasiewicz, who was briefly added to the 40-man late in 2000 before being lost on waivers to the Angels for whom he worked out the bullpen the next two seasons.
David Wells, of course, independently made his way back to the Jays and remained a few months beyond that until he was moved in the ill-fated Mike Sirotka deal that effectively sealed Gord Ash’s fate.