In 1985 the Toronto Blue Jays finally ascended to the promised land, breaking through to win the AL East with 99 wins. The only downside to that was picking last in the following year’s draft (three spots behind the Cardinals who won an MLB-best 101 games thanks to the mechanics of ordering).
1986 was also the last year of the both the January drafts, and the regular/secondary phases. Starting in 1987, there was just one consolidated June draft.
Drafted/signed: 44/24 (55%)
High school/college/other breakdown: 19/23/2 (6/16/2 signed)
Pitcher/position player breakdown: 25/19 (14/25 and 10/19 signed)
In their first nine years drafting, the most big leaguers to come out of any given year was six (in 1978 and 1982). By that standard, 1986 was a ringing success, with the June draft alone smashing that record with 10.
However, a good many of those had little impact. Carlos Diaz and Jimmy Rogers had cups of coffee in 1990 and 1995, respectively; Steve Cummings pitched a handful of innings in 1989-90. Darren Hall was a promising reliever in the mid-1990s, but whose career was undermined by arm injuries. Randy Knorr was the rare high school catcher who actually succeeded, and had a pretty lengthy career albeit as a replacement level backup.
First rounder Earl Sanders was a two-way player at Jackson State in Mississippi, who went 11-2 with a 3.32 ERA and 109 strikeouts in 97 innings on the mound, his fastball up to 93 MPH per press reports. As an outfielder, he was no slouch at the plate either, hitting .417 with 17 home runs. The Jays preferred him at a pitcher, He had a good debut at St. Catharines (2.06 ERA in 56 innings), but it didn’t translate over to full season ball and he topped out in AA. Year later Gord Ash reflected to the Globe and Mail, “He was good the first couple years, then ran into some shoulder problems and was never the same after that.”
After another college RHP in Cummings, the Jays took a very risky demographic in a high school catcher, Andy Dziadkowiec. He topped out in Double-A, and a draft class is usually in trouble when the top 100 picks are busts. But it was saved by unearthing a gem in the 5th round from another risky demographic in a high school pitcher from just across the river in metro Detroit. Pat Hentgen is one of the top homegrown players in franchise history, Tom’s 11th greatest Blue Jay in franchise history.
Another high schooler who bears mentioning is infielder Tom Quinlan, from high school in Minnesota. The Jays loved their dual sport athletes, and in this case it was baseball and hockey. Quinlan was drafted in the 4th round of the NHL draft by the Calgary Flames, and had a full scholarship to the powerhouse University of Minnesota. Had he been committed to either sport, he’d have gone higher in both drafts, but the Jays bought him out of that for a reported $100,000 (late first round money). He spent three years at AA Knoxville and three more at AAA Syracuse, but ultimately couldn’t bang down the door for more than a cup of coffee.
Beyond that, the draft class produces some pitchers who had not insignificant major league careers. Fourth rounder Xavier Hernandez was a journeyman reliever for 10 years, whose peak was 2.11 ERA across 111 innings in 1992 for Houston. The Jays had lost him to the Astros in the 1989 Rule 5 Draft, so they didn’t realize his value.
Likewise, Willie Blair pitched for 12 big league season, the peak being 16-8, 4.17 ERA in 175 innings for Detroit in 1997. He was traded in November 1990 to Cleveland for 1987 first rounder Alex Sanchez, who had been sent two months earlier for Bud Black. Finally, Doug Linton pitched 300 innings over seven seasons, most of that after the Jays lost him on waivers in 1993. He returned in 2003 as a cheap J.P. Riccardi flyer that didn’t really pan out
Notable unsigned draftees
Cris Carpenter was the punter for the University of Georgia’s football, and secondarily pitched as a reliever for the baseball team. A fastball into the 90s was bound to attract scouting attention, but he wasn’t willing to give up football. While the NCAA allowed players to turn professional in one sport and maintain eligibility in another, the SEC did not. Nonetheless, the Jays took a shot in the 7th round, reportedly offered a signing bonus of over $100,000 (first round money) as he was rated a top prospect that summer in the Cape Cod League, but it wasn’t enough to give up football. It wasn’t until the following spring that he was willing to focus on baseball, going in the first round to the Cardinals. For their part, the Jays would have better luck a few years later with a different C(h)ris Carpenter....
What’s remarkable is that how few of the other unsigned draftees went on to play professionally, even granting that a number of them were flyers at the end. Besides Carpenter who made the majors, just five of the 19 others went onto professional careers, and none of those even reached the Double-A level.
In what ended up as the last January draft, the Blue Jays once again did a lot of drafting but signed just three of the 17 players selected. Their top two round picks stalled out in the lower minors, but the last signee in the 5th round proved to be a real find. Mark Whiten had a strong debut for Medicine Hat, moved up progressively through the system with solid if unspectacular performance until reaching AAA Syracuse in 1990 where he put up a .819 OPS and earned a late season call-up.
Baseball America’s #25 prospect entering 1991, breaking into the crowded outfield of a contender teeming with established big leaguers and prospects was a tall order. Not able to establish himself with irregular playing time in 1991, Whiten was traded to Cleveland in late June for Tom Candiotti, where he was able to get regular playing time. In the end, Whiten had a solid 11 year career as a roughly average hitter, posting some solid seasons but never putting it all together (excepting 1994 which was cut short with the strike).
Other players available: The top of the first round was incredibly strong, as the first six picks were all successful big leaguers including near Hall of Famers in Kevin Brown and Gary Sheffield, plus Matt Williams. Though the next seven all made the majors as well, there was a big drop-off from that point with just two significant MLB careers in the rest of the first round (for a bust rate of almost 90%).
Which isn’t to say there wasn’t some talent available. Two very good college RHP went in the first half of the second round the Jays could have taken, Erik Hanson and Kevin Tapani. Of course, Hanson would later be an expensive mistake as a free agent (who cost them a pick in the 1997 draft to boot). Right after the Jays took Cummings, Todd Zeile went to St. Luis and a few picks later Dean Palmer had a solid career. Beyond that point, Hentgen was the equal of Tom Gordon for the best player to come out of the draft.
Overall assessment/grade: A. When you pick at the end of the first round with no extra picks, getting a useful big leaguer and some complementary players is a win. Getting an impact starter like Hentgen, especially whose career value was very frontloaded to his control years. Whiten is a solid kicker, and some other guys they were able to cash in for trade value to bolster contending teams.
Last Blue Jays connection to the 1986 draft year: Like Hill from 1983, Whiten feeds into the Candiotti—Stewart—Kielty—Lilly—Magnuson—Rajai Davis line through 2013. Other than that, Hentgen is one of the longest tenured players in team history, spending 12.5 years before being traded in a November 1999 salary dump for Lance Painter, Alberto Castillo and Matt DeWitt, who all stuck around to various points in 2001 for a 15 year chain. Hentgen of course had one more tour in 2004 as a free agent, retiring mid-season.