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Assessing the 1987 Blue Jays draft

A promising starter who flamed out, a power outfield bat, and a righty reliever who pitched forever

Toronto Blue Jays v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

After three years picking near the very end of the first round at the earliest, the disappointment that was the 1986 season pushed the Toronto Blue Jays back to the middle of the pack in the AL East but moved them up into the middle of the first round. It was also the first year of thee being one consolidated draft, and the first of many drafts that went very deep.

Drafted/signed: 71/36 (51%)

High school/college/junior college breakdown: 30/28/13 (12/22/2 signed)

Pitcher/position player breakdown: 31/40 (16/31 and 20/40 signed)

Players signed

1987 June signed

Alex Sanchez was a 6’2” righty out of UCLA with two plus pitches in the fastball that topped out around 92 and a slider. He went 16-3 with a 4.06 ERA and 142 strikeouts in 139 innings in being named an All-American as a sophomore, but regressed to a 5.92 ERA in 106 innings as a junior, Nonetheless, the Blue Jays still made him a first rounder.

He had a strong debut for St. Catharines (2.64 ERA, 116K in 95.1 innings), and went straight to AA Knoxville in 1988. Here too he aced the big jump, posting 2.53 ERA with 166/74 K/BB in 149.1 innings to jump to Syracuse where he was solid. In 1989 he was back there and very good, 3.13 ERA 141/74 in 169.2 innings to earn a brief call-up that was rough (10.03 ERA in 11.2 innings). The only minor yellow flag was a rising walk rate indicating tenuous control, but he looked like a future part of the rotation.

And then, it stopped working. 1990 was a lost season, 5.71 ERA as Sanchez dealt with injuries including rotator cuff inflammation. He was traded to Cleveland for Bud Black, and then a couple months later back to Toronto for Willie Blair. In 1991, he walked 35 in 28 innings at Syracuse and was demoted to Knoxville, where he was solid, but at the end of the season was lost in waivers. Pat Gillick would later say tot he Globe and Mail: “His biggest problem was off the field. Things away from the field deterred his growth”.

Derek Bell was the second rounder out of C. Leon King HS in Florida (the Jays would return three decades later for current prospect Addison Barger). He had a strong debut in St/ Catharines, hitting 10 home runs against older players to show advanced in-game power. He went off in Myrtle Beach in 1988 (.344/.377/.557) to establish himself among the top in a system that was deep in talented outfield prospects.

Bell spun his heels over the next couple seasons, struggling to adjust to the upper levels of the minors. But in 1991, he again put a massive season repeating AAA in Syracuse, .346/.424/.532 to force his way to the big leagues. He spent 1992 in the majors, posting a .678 OPS as a bench player playing a couple times a week. Today, a 23-year-old top prospect would probably be sent to play everyday in AAA, and perhpas that would have been better for Bell.

As it was, he felt he should have a starting role in the majors, while the Jays were a veteran team that had just won the World Series and weren’t going to hand him anything. The Jays’ braintrust soured on his attitude, and on the eve of the 1993 season executed a major shake-up. The Jays released David Wells (also unhappy with his role) and shipped Bell to San Diego for Darrin Jackson to play left field, giving up on a 24-year old with ample potential.

On one hand, they won the World Series so it worked out in the near term. On the other, it was a lopsided trade and both players had fine careers. Bell played everyday in 1993, a solid everyday regular through 2000 with a mammoth 1998 season. The surly disposition never left, as his career ended with “Operation Shutdown” in 2002.

The final major leaguer of note is fifth rounder Mike Timlin. Enter pro ball as a starter, his workload shifted as he moved up the system to where he was a fulltime reliever by 1990, finishing the year with a 1.73 ERA in 26 innings at AA Knoxville. He won a bullpen job out of Spring Training in 1991, pitching 108 innings with a .316 ERA.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing from there, as he battled injuries and ineffectiveness from 1992-94 though he famously was on the mound when the Jays won in extra innings of Game 6 in 1992. Things really clicked in 1995 at age 29, so he was something of a late bloomer, and then he was one of better lefty righty relievers in baseball for the next dozen years (it just feels like Timlin was an ageless lefty).

Ryan Thompson was one other draftee who had a notable MLB career, a kicker included in the 1992 David Cone/Jeff Kent deal. He had a couple decent years with the Mets before being flipped and non-tendered by Cleveland in 1996 (and two further minor league stints with the Jays. Bob Macdonald and Steve Wapnick had cups of coffee, the latter sold the same day of the Wells/Bell housecleaning.


Unsigned draftees

1987 June unsigned

By the end of the draft, the Blue Jays were one of two teams left at the table, alternating picks for several rounds with Kansas City. They took a lot of flyers, and that’s reflected in only signing just over half their 71 selections, including 2/13 junior college players and 12/30 high schoolers, as well as the fact that over half (18 of 35) unsigned players did not go onto play professionally.

In large measure, the draft breaks down into two parts. In the top 33 rounds, they signed 26 players (79%). Of the seven draftees they didn’t sign at the top but were seemingly quite serious about, four went onto play at the major league level, though none had any impact. The Jays signed one the next year, and the other two topped out at AAA. So almost all of them were in fact pretty darn good professional players.

Of the next 38 rounds, the Jays signed just 10 (26%), with a heavy mix of prep and juco selections (not coincidently, this is right around the time teams started dropping out). They did identify two future long-time MLB players in Darren Lewis and Orlando Palmeiro. Neither were truly impact players that rose to the level of regretting not being able to sign them, but had quality careers.


Summary

1987 drafts summary

Other players available: Craig Biggio went five picks after Sanchez, 22nd overall to the Astros, so there’s that. Travis Fryman went in the supplemental round, and Albert Belle a couple spots before Bell in the second round. Overall though, 11 of the 15 players after Sanchez were (essentially) busts so it’s not the case that the pool was overflowing. The 6th round has a guy named Charlie Montoyo, and Reggie Sanders went one pick after them in the 7th ound.

Overall assessment/grade: B. They whiffed on the first rounder, but got one of the better players in the second round and a long time quality major leaguer in Timlin (though his career value ended up backweighted beyond the control years).

Last Blue Jays connection to the 1988 draft: Timlin was not only the last member of the draft class in the organization, but the July 1997 trade in which he was packaged with Paul Spoljaric for Jose Cruz Jr. extends the line through December 2002 (when Cruz was non-tendered by the J.P. Riccardi, the first modern/economic non-tender in franchise history) where it terminates.