In 1977, the Toronto Blue Jays did not have a farm system. They broke Spring Training with 34 players; the nine who did not make the major league team were optioned to affiliates of various other teams (mostly Cleveland and Houston).
The first minor league team fielded by the Jays came that summer with their Utica entrant in the short season New York-Penn League. Having already signed about a dozen players (including five Canadians), there weren’t spots for the number of draftees teams usually made. With 16 picks made, the Jays were the first team to bow out of the draft (the Astros were the next team to stop after round 18; their expansion cousin Mariners went 32 rounds).
Drafted/signed: 16/11 (69%)
High school/college: 9/7 (4/9 and 7/7 signed)
Pitcher/position player: 6/10 (3/6 and 8/10 signed)
Picking at the back of the first round, the first player chosen by the Jays in the June draft was a high school shortstop from Ohio, Tom Goffena. After posting a .255/.335/.280 line with Utica, he missed most of 1978 after suffering a shoulder injury and only played one more year in 1979. He passed away in 2020.
The next three picks were also high schoolers, all from California, though the Jays did not sign either their second or third rounder. That would certainly represent a black mark today, but the Jays were looking to sign the best athletes they could even if they were solidly committed to high school.
After taking four college players, none oh whom lasted in pro ball until 1979, the Jays went back to the high school ranks and struck cold weather pay dirt. Jesse Barfield was young for his class (not turning 19 until October), and it took some time for him to mature into his talent (he posted a .518 OPS in 1978). He was much better in 1979, and then solid moving up to AA Knoxville in 1980-81 before debuting late that year with the Jays.
He was an everyday player from that point, establishing himself as a solid regular in 1983 at age 23. He flourished further in the mid-80s as perhaps the best right fielders in baseball, and though that magnificent peak was short lived, he remained overall quite productive through his early-30s before a rapid decline. His career arc was something of a shooting star, but he remains a fixture in franchise history.
The only other draftee who made the majors was their second last selection, Danny Ainge, who was a special case. A multi-sport high school star in Oregon, Ainge’s future was generally considered brightest in basketball and he rebuffed draft interest from MLB teams in favour of attending BYU. The Jays were desperate to add talent, so they shelled out a bonus of over $100,000 on the basis that he’d play baseball in the summer when basketball season was over.
They moved him right to AAA in 1978, and despite the fact that he never hit much at all, he was in the majors in 1979. At the end of 1980, before he returned to BYU for his senior season, he signed a three year contract with a $300,000 signing bonus to commit to baseball exclusively in 1981. But he had a monster season, and combined with the struggles in baseball decided he wanted to play basketball. Most NBA teams were dissuaded from picking him due to the contractual commitment with the Jays, but the Celtics took him. He ended up leaving the Jays in late 1981, the team took him to court, and eventually a settlement was worked out where the Jays sold his rights. It was clearly the right choice.
The final 1977 draftee of note is Ralph “Rocket” Wheeler, not for his playing career, but for an almost four decade long coaching career that started with the Jays.
Notable unsigned: none
Of the five unsigned high school players, only two played in the minor leagues with none making the majors. 3rd rounder Jim Teahan was drafted in the 18th round three years later as a college junior and reached Double-A. Their last pick, Steve Leppert, was drafted in the 5th round three years later but never advanced beyond A-ball.
Though Goffena is often referred to as the first player drafted by the Blue Jays, that’s not really the case given the January drafts. Instead, that distinction belongs to Brad Ross, an outfielder from Blinn College in Texas who was one of five players selected on January 11, 1977 (four in the regular draft and one secondary phase). Picking at the end of the round, they missed out on their top target, fellow Blinn outfielder James Glenn.
The only one signed was their third round pick, right-handed pitcher Jay Robertson out of Sacramento City Junior College in California. Signed in May after their season ended, he had a good summer in Utica’s bullpen before moving up to the newly established full season affiliate in Dunedin for 1978. It was on to Kinston for 1979, where his 2.36 ERA earned him a late-season promotion to AAA Syracuse. He was added to the 40-man to protect him from the Rule 5, but spent the entire season on option and was removed after a lackluster season.
Overall assessment/grade: A-, arguably even straight A. You get a Jesse Barfield, your draft is a success. That’s slightly offset by not getting any other MLB value and whiffing on their picks at the top, but building an organization from scratch starting just a year earlier means not having the same depth of scouting infrastructure.
Last Blue Jays connection to the 1977 draft year: Barfield was traded to the Yankees in April 1989 for Al Leiter, who pitched for the Jays until 1995 after which he infamously departed as a free agent for the Florida Marlins. As a Type B free agent offered arbitration, the Jays received the Marlins third pick as compensation, selecting LHP Clayton Andrews 74th overall. After a brief cup of coffee, he was traded in November 2000 to Cincinnati for Steve Parris. Parris started in 2001-02 before departing as a free agent, thus ending a chain that went back 25 years to the first Blue Jays draft.
Coincidently, 2002 was Rocket Wheeler’s last year managing in the Blue Jays minor league system, as J.P. Riccardi and his player development hire Dick Scott cleaned house and put their own stamp on the organization.