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Assessing the 1985 Blue Jays drafts

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The Jays found one important future piece in an unlikely place

Todd Stottlemyre

In 1984, the Toronto Blue Jays continued their rapid ascent up the ranks of the American League, taking the step from respectability to bona fide contenders. Although they finished 15 games behind the 104-58 Tigers juggernaut, 89-73 was good for the second best record in the American League. For that purposes for drafting however, that meant picking second last in 1985 (despite only having the fifth best record in baseball due to the mechanics of the ordering).

There was one stroke of good fortune however. While the ordering for regular/primary phases of both the January and June drafts were by reverse order of standings, the secondary draft was done by lot. For the June secondary draft, the Jays won the third overall pick, and were able to take full advantage.

June Draft

Drafted/signed: 37/24 (65%)

High school/college/other breakdown: 12/21/4 (6/18/0 signed)

Pitcher/position player breakdown: 17/20 (9/17 and 15/20 signed)

1985 June signed corrected

With the same 25th overall pick as they had in their first June draft, the Blue Jays once again went with a high schooler in choosing Greg David out of Naples, Florida. He had played mostly outfield, but the Jays projected him as a catcher due to a plus arm (he was a quarterback and had a football scholarship to UCF though to play safety). He was another attempt to finally develop a home grown catcher (this was before the previously drafted Greg Myers and Pat Borders has emerged).

Alas, it didn’t take, and after three seasons in the system was moved to third base. In those stops at Medicine Hat, Florence and Dunedin he flashed promising power albeit with low averages, but the bat stagnated after that as he remained in low-A. In September 1989, his rights were sold to San Diego, where he played a couple years in AA and then another with Kansas City.

Kevin Batiste was similarly a high school outfielder from Galveston, Texas with tools and potential in baseball and football. “I think I’ll sign. I’d rather play baseball than football” he told the Toronto Star on the day of the draft. But here too, the tools didn’t translate to baseball skills in pro ball as he was plagued by contact issues (though stole 70 bases in 1987). On-and-off the 40-man roster multiple times, he has a brief cup of coffee in 1989 before being moved to Atlanta as part of Ernie Whitt deal/dump that winter and only played one more year.

After that, the Jays pivoted to college players, making up 18 of the remaining 22 players who signed. The only other high schooler of note was Shawn Jeter, another outfielder drafted in the 7th round from Louisiana. He reached Triple-A in the Blue Jays system, and was sent to the White Sox in 1991 for Cory Snyder and got a cup of coffee the following year.

The best signed draftee proved to be LHP Jeff Musselman in the 5th round from Harvard. He rocketed through the system, reaching AA in 1986 and earning a late season call-up. He stuck in 1987 out of the bullpen as Jimmy Key did a few years earlier, turning in a decent season. After battling injuries in the first half of 1988, he came up for the second half and turned in 15 very good starts (3.18 ERA in 85 innings) that signaled a promising future.

But instead of that being a launching pad to bigger and brighter things, that turned out to be Musselman’s peak. Again battling injures, he regressed in 1989 and at the July deadline was flipped to the Mets for Mookie Wilson. That of course worked out quite well for the Jays as Mookie was a catalyst down the stretch as the Jays came all the way back from the 12-24 start to win the East. Musselman was non-tendered after 1990, pitching a couple years at AAA Tacoma for Oakland in 1991-92.


Notable unsigned draftees

1985 June unsigned

The Jays took a couple of high schoolers relatively early who didn’t sign, and though both subsequently was re-drafted and play professionally, they didn’t advance past the minors. Rich DeLucia returned to the University of Tennessee before going onto a solid 10 year journeyman bullpen career from 1990-99.

The real gem was Jim Abbott as a flyer near the very end out of high school in Michigan. Even then he was noted for being a one-armed pitcher, and the Jays did make a serious run at singing him including bringing him to SkyDome for a workout, but he was quite strongly committed to attending Ann Arbor. It worked out very well, as Abbott went on to be drafted 8th overall in 1988 and have a successful career.


Other Drafts

1985 other drafts

Once again, the Jays make a lot of picks in January and signed a few, though ultimately of no significance beyond Dennis “Speedboat” Jones having a great name and signed as a replacement player for 1994. His brother Eugene “Motorboat” also played professionally (“My mother calls me Motor and my teammates call me boat”.

What ended up very significant was who they got with the 3rd overall pick of the June secondary. Todd Stottlemyre had been drafted out of high school the 5th round of the 1983 draft by the Yankees, but wasn’t ready to turn pro. After a year at the University of Nevada, he transferred to Yakima junior college near the family home, and was drafted first overall by St. Louis in January 1985. They couldn’t work out a deal after he had a “shaky” season, but he was happy to be selected by the Jays who were undeterred based on their previous evaluation of his potential.

He moved rapidly through the minors, and though had many ups and down had established himself in the rotation by 1989 and had a solid career as a mid-rotation type. Tom ranked him 39th in Blue Jays history.


Summary

1985 drafts summary

Other players available: The 1985 first round was incredibly fruitful, with two Hall of Famers (Barry Larkins and Barry Bonds*), another but for PEDs (Rafael Palmeiro), and a Hall of Very Gooder in Will Clark. B.J. Surhoff was a fifth excellent outcome, another six compiled at least 10 WAR, and a further two had solid if unspectacular careers. Just 10 of the first 23 picks were busts.

Unfortunately, it thinned out after that, with 10 straight busts from the backend of the first round through the early second. There were a handful of decent players drafted in the second round, but the big miss? With the eighth pick of the second round, the Expos took Randy Johnson 36th overall. Once again, the Jays were looking at the high school ranks with their top picks while the value was in a historically bounteous college crop. Cleveland fond David Justice (~40 WAR) in the 4th round.

Overall assessment/grade: If it was strictly for the main June draft, it would be at best a C grade and probably more like a D+ given that they found very little ultimate MLB value even given the handicap of picking at the bottom. Stottlemyre alone however makes for a successful draft, albeit with the caveat they had very good luck to even be in a position to take him in the first place. Accordingly, I’ll go with a B+ (A- but for that caveat).

Last Blue Jays connection to the 1985 draft year: Stottlemyre qualified as a free agent after the aborted 1994 season, outlasting Jeter by over three years and Mookie Wilson by three years as an indirect connection. That winter, the Jays offered him a three year/$7-million contract before transactions were frozen by MLB’s imposition of a new economic system. He declined it, and when the strike ended in April, the Jays acquired David Cone and accordingly didn’t offer salary arbitration so there was no draft pick compensation when he signed with Oakland (for a pay cut over 1994).