Building on the strong above-.500 finish to 1982, in 1983 the Toronto Blue Jays achieved two franchise firsts. At 89-73, they both avoided the cellar and finished above .500 for the first time while flirting with contention and even leading the division in late July before a swoon knocked them out for good (ultimately finishing 4th nine games behind Baltimore).
Looking to continue that momentum and move closer to the top of the pack, the Jays were aggressive bidding for free agents, especially to upgrade the bullpen. After missing out on Kent Tekulve and Goose Gossage, in January 1984 the Jays landed Dennis Lamp from the Chicago White Sox on a three year deal for 1.65-million guaranteed. Rated as a Type A free agent, it cost the Jays their top pick at 20th overall which Chicago ended using on Tony Menendez, a high school RHP from Florida who made 23 relief appearances from 1992-94 (4.97 ERA).
Whether that was worthy move is a matter for another day, but for these purposes the salient point is the extent to which is limited the expected value and bar for success from the 1984 June draft. combined with the effect of picking towards the end of the first round rather than the beginning, the Blue Jays had just two picks in the top 100 with their first coming 48th overall.
Drafted/signed: 29/17 (59%)
High school/college/other: 13/14/2 (4/12/1 signed)
Pitcher/position player: 15/14 (11/15 and 6/14 signed)
A common theme in these reviews has been that the Jays loved rolling the dice on upside and pure athleticism with players who excelled in multiple sports, and that’s exactly what the Jays did with Dane Johnson. A 6’5” righty from a small Division-II school who did not play high school baseball focusing n basketball and track, he tried out for the baseball team essentially on a lark and had only been played three seasons, with a 1-2 record and 6.89 ERA in his draft year (his coach was a second year unknown named Paul Mainieri, who would go on to Air Force, Notre Dame, and finally powerhouse LSU). To say the least, not at all the typical draft profile at all.
Future scouting director Tim Wilken was the area scout, and it was the pure potential that had attracted interest from many teams. Johnson had big fastball velocity despite control problems, but was ultimately a development project. But ultimately, the Jays were never able to iron out the control issues as he never advanced past A-ball in their system, walking 59 in 41.2 IP (1984), 37 in 34.1 IP (1985), 114 in 123.1 (1986, just 68 K).
He was released in early 1989, playing in the Chinese League (CPBL) from 1990-91 and then in Taiwan before returning to North America to take a coaching job at Lamar. But along the way something clicked and he returned to playing in 1993 where he was effective in the upper levels with Milwaukee. He debuted with the White Sox in 1994, a brief run of 12.1 innings. In January 1996 he re0signed the the rebuilding Jays, receiving a late season call-up. that fall he was claimed off waivers by Oakland, for whom he had his longest run in 1997.
That was the last of his major league career, pitching again with Syracuse in 1998 after again signing as a free agent. But he was far from done with the Jays, rejoining the organization in 2000 as a pitching coach with Auburn and progressively up the chain. From 2004-14 he was a roving pitching instructor, promoted to the major league bullpen coach in 2015 where he lasted until his firing in 2018 by the new regime. Somewhat awkwardly, his son Cobi had just been drafted by the Jays in the 30th round from FSU, pitching at high-A Vancouver last year. The elder Johnson is now with Kansas City.
Third rounder Greg Myers was another in the long line of Catchers of the Future(tm) as he flashed some offensive potential in the minors. He was added to the 40-man after 1986, which resulted in a big jump from A to AAA, which combined with injuries delayed his ascension to the big leagues (beyond a cup of coffee in 1987). In 1990-91 he platooned with Pat Borders, but by 1992 Borders was getting the lion’s share of the time and Myers was packaged with Rob Ducey to get Mark Eichhorn from California in June to reinforce the bullpen.
Norm Tonucci is a final player who was technically a major leaguer though he topped out at AAA Syracuse. He was added to the 40-man (major league) roster after 1987 before being outrighted in March the following year. None of the other made it past AA Knoxville, with five topping out there.
Almost half the draft was high schoolers, but the Jays signed very few of them. A number of those were the usual flyers at the end, but a number were higher up and suggestive of much more serious interest. Their sixth round pick was Scott Livingstone from a Dallas high school, who attended Texas A&M and was drafted in the third round in 1987 and second round in 1988. He carved out a solid eight year career from 1991-98, hitting .281 but with little power. To the extent one got away in this class, Livingstone is it, but ended up depth rather than impact.
They drafted another three high schoolers in rounds 11 to 13, but none of them signed. Curiously, only one played professionally, and just one season of rookie ball at that. two others did make the majors, but were replacement type up-and-down players who had bried stints. Their last pick was Rodney Peete, whose is likely recognizable for his 15-year NFL quarterbacking career. Heck of a football team Gillick could have put together with his drafts.
Following the pattern of recent years, the Blue Jays were quite active in the January drafts but only signed a couple players. Eric Yelding was part of the infamous 1988 Rule 5 crop, when the Jays had five players taken from them. His carrying tool was speed, stealing 83 bases in 1987 despite not hitting much at any level.
He was one of two who stuck, taken by Chicago and claimed by Houston after they put him on waivers to return him. In fact, he had the longest tenure with his new team of any of the players taken, mostly in a bench role by earning near regular playing time (559 PA in 142 games) in 1990 and stole 64 bases though also led the NL with 25 caught stealing. Ultimately, he was a sub-replacement value player.
Dwight Smith was a future big leaguer, with a substantial eight year career. More significant as pertains to the Jays, he is also the father of future first rounder Dwight Smith Jr. (2011, 53rd overall). On the subject of bloodlines, Tim Rypien was the brother of NFL quarterback Mark Rypien (and father of fellow NFL QB Brett Rypien). Again, the Jays loved their athletes.
Other players available: The 1984 first round was not strong, with six draftees failing to make the majors and another 12 having no impact for a 70% failure rate. The Jays wouldn’t have have had a shot at Mark McGwire (10th) or Jay Bell (8th), but 31st overall with the third pick of the second round the Cubs took a Las Vegas high schooler named Greg Maddux (and right after him went some guy named John Farrell).
Immediately before the Jays took Johnson, Atlanta nabbed a Massachusetts high school lefty by the name of Tom Glavine. Two picks after them, the Yankees took another Notheast prep pitcher in Al Leiter. Myers was the second best player taken in the third round after Ken Caminiti. There were relatively few hits in the rest of the top 10 rounds.
Overall assessment/grade: C. As discussed at the outset, the expectation/bar was much lower than in years past, and on top of that it was a weak year. They didn’t land any impact talent which is always the goal, but in that context finding a guy who was good enough to stick around for 18 MLB seasons until he was almost 40 is a measure of reasonable success.
Last Blue Jays connection to the 1984 draft year: Myers was both the last direct connection (traded in June 1992 for Eichhorn, a free agent after the season) and the last playing connection period by virtue of returning via free agency in December 2002 until hanging it up in April 2005. Notably, he enjoyed a career year in 2003 with a 119 wRC+ and ~2 WAR in 369 PA.
On the non-playing side, Johnson was still with the organization almost 35 years later, and that connection likely contributed to Cobi signing with the Jays as a late round pick (he was a potential top couple rounds pick out of high school). In that sense, arguably there is still some connection today.