In 1991, the Toronto Blue Jays fell short of the World Series for the third time, and accordingly were consigned to the familiar 25th overall pick for the AL runner-up in 1992. That was supplemented when Type A free agent Tom Candiotti spurned them for Los Angeles, but that did net them two high draft picks, including the Dodgers’ 19th overall selection (in addition to a supplemental first rounder 34th overall.
Meanwhile, the Blue Jays signed two major free agents in Dave Winfield and Jack Morris. Those signings did not cost them draft picks, as neither the Angels or Twins offered salary arbitration as required to receive compensation. By contrast, Frank Viola, the other starter they pursued, would have cost them the 25th overall pick (now that it mattered in hindsight). It sets up an interesting hypothetical, had the Jays re-signed Candiotti and not received the 19th pick, would the successful draftee they took have lasted to 25th?
Drafted/signed: 52/30 (58%)
High school/college/junior college breakdown: 36/14/2 (17/12/1 signed)
Pitcher/position player breakdown: 18/34 (12/18 and 18/34 signed)
Going into the 1992 draft, Pat Gillick had a clear priority: “We’ve lost three outfielders — Pedro Munoz, Mark Whiten and Glenallen Hill — through trades over the last couple seasons, so we were kind of looking to replenish in that department”. Given the aphorism that when it comes to the MLB Draft the best course of action is to draft the best player available rather than for positional need, it’s fortuitous that using their top two picks on outfielders worked out (in sum) as well as it did.
Shannon Stewart was an outfielder from Southridge High School, who was rated the 23rd best prospect by Baseball America, but second best among the high school outfield crop in a draft that was college-heavy at the top. According to Gillick the Jays were interested another higher schooler, pitcher Jim Pittsley, but he went to the Royals two picks before them. It worked out for the best for the Jays.
Stewart was described by Gillick in the Globe and Mail as “a prototype centre fielder”, though apparently Stewart thought he might go another team higher. He had hurt his shoulder in the fall of 1997 in a football game, which caused some teams to avoid him, but had looked into his medicals and were satisfied. Stewart’s poor throwing arm of course eventually landed him in left field rather than CF, but the speed element certainly came through in spades.
Stewart moved slowly at first through the Toronto system, turning in a decent 1993 at shot season St. Catharines, not assigned to a full season team until 1994. That was his breakout year, posting a .324/.387/.467 line at low-A after which Baseball America ranked him its 72 prospects. He moved right to Knoxville in 1995, turning in another strong year to earn a brief September call-up. He continued to hit at Syracuse in 1996-97, and was in Toronto for good in 1997. For the next six years he was the protypical leadoff hitter, with a high average and strong OBP.
The second outfielder didn’t work out so well. Todd Steverson was also a speedy, CF prototype drafted out of powerhouse Arizona State, where he hit .303 in his junior season with 11 HR and 17 stolen bases. He had been a third rounder out of high school by the Cardinals, and BA apparently ranked him as 7th in the draft, so in that sense it was good value. He posted decent batting lines climbing to Double-A by 1994, but struggled with strikeouts. The Jays lost him to Detroit in the 1994 Rule 5 Draft.
With their supplemental pick, the Jays went back to the high school ranks for South Carolinian shortstop Brandon Cromer. He was rated the 20th by Baseball America, slightly ahead of Stewart. His bat never really got untracked in the professional ranks, and in November 1996 he was one of the six prospects sent to Pittsburgh (added by them to their 40-man roster but removed midway through 1997 without playing the majors).
In the second round the Jays drafted RHP Tim Crabtree from Michigan State, where he had been a catcher before converting to pitching for 1992. He moved quickly through the system as a starter, but started transitioning to relief in 1994 at AAA Syracuse. By 1995, he was a short reliever, and made his MLB debut that June.
He posted strong work in 1995-96 (2.72 ERA in 99.1 innings) before an injury riddled 1997 that that ended in a 7.08 ERA. That next spring Gord Ash flipped him for back-up catcher Kevin Brown in another poorly-conceived if not hugely impactful trade, and Crabtree rebounded to post a couple of good years in Texas’s bullpen before his career tailed off. Believe it or not, that makes him one of the better second rounders.
The next three picks all came through the high school ranks, showed promise at various points of their careers and were considered part of the future and spent time on the 40-man. Tom Evans made his way up level-by-level, and posted strong offensive numbers in the upper minors. Blocked by Ed Sprague (who had the 36 HR career year in 1996), Evans finally had an opportunity when the Jays moved Sprague at the deadline in 1998, but a week later he suffered a season ending shoulder injury.
Jeff Patzke followed a similar path up, also posting good offensive performance at the upper levels of the minors, but never got a major league opportunity. He was one of the favourites of the sabr-crowd Baseball Prospectus, who could never understand why Gord Ash didn’t give him a look over various retreads who cycled through in 1997-98. Anthony Sanders likewise got a cup of coffee and spent multiple years on the doorstep in the late-1990s before Seattle claimed him on waivers.
The 1992 Blue Jays draft was very heavily weighted to the high school ranks at 69% of their 52 picks, and it wasn’t just late round flyers. That aggressive of an approach inherently results in more unsigned players since there’s only so much financial resources to be spread around, and the Jays signed just under half of them (17, with 19 unsigned)
Given that, as well as the strong lean to the position players over pitchers (65%), it’s not surprising that a couple of those prep position players turned out. Doug Mientkiewicz was drafted as a catcher of Westminster Christian HS (where Alex Rodrigue was picked first overall the next year, and J.P. Arencibia later attended). He went in the 5th round to the Twins three years later out of Florida State University as a first baseman and had a solid decade long career. Jeff DaVanon likewise went on to a decent career as a utility man out of San Diego State.
But the most interesting unsigned draft pick was outfielder Shea Morenz out of high school in Texas. Baseball America had ranked him the 25th best draft prospect, but was also a noted football quarterback committed to the University of Texas (having chosen them over UCLA and Stanford). Further interesting was that his father was Canadian, had played with Bobby Orr on the Oshawa Generals, and was distantly related to former Canadiens player Howie Morenz.
Morenz was open to signing, but the family had sent teams a letter before the draft saying it would take a record-breaking bonus in excess of the $1.55-million Brien Taylor got in 1991, so he slid down the board until the Jays took a flyer in the sixth round. Apparently, he didn’t budge, went to Texas where he played football for two years before focusing on baseball, going 27th overall to the Yankees in 1995 (signing them for $650,000; one wonders if the Jays offered more than that). He stalled out in Double-A, got an MBA and traded one evil empire (NYY) for another (Goldman Sachs) and today runs his own investment company.
Other players available: Only one player taken before Stewart had a better career, Derek Jeter taken 6th overall by the Yankees. Jason Kendall (~40 WAR career) went four picks later, so perhaps the Jays could have done slightly better but getting Stewart was a great outcome based on what was on the board, especially given that his career value was extremely frontloaded and almost entirely within his control years.
The more obvious place for second guessing is their other second rounders. Thee picks after the Jays took Steverson, the Marlins got another longtime starting catcher in Charles Johnson from the University of Miami. Right after the Jays took Cromer, the Royals nabbed Johnny Damon out of an Orlando high school (it was a banner draft year in Florida!). In early in the second round the Royals grabbed Jon Lieber, though the real gem was Jason Giambi to Oakland.
In fairness, those were the only players to have meaningful MLB careers until Crabtree late in the late second round. The point is not to hold the Jays to a standard of perfection, but getting any one of those first three players in particular would have made it a home run.
Overall assessment/grade: B+. On one hand, it was a quite weak draft on the whole, so getting one quality everyday regular is better than most. On the other hand, the extra picks gave them a higher bar for a successful draft. Surveying the other teams, 11 got essentially nothing from their draft classes (two without a first rounder), and another six I’d rate as worse returns given what they had. On the flip side, four (Pittsburgh/Oakland/KC/Detroit) did better better, with another four (Florida/Colorado/Texas/Seattle) getting similar value with less. That puts the Jays around the top third of 1992 draft outcomes, so a solid B+.
Last Blue Jays connection to the 1992 draft: As a compensatory pick for Candiotti, Stewart is part of a transaction chain that already stretched back nine years to Glenallen Hill’s selection in 1983. He not only outlasted anyone else from the draft class by more three years (Anthony Sanders), but after 11 years in the organization was traded in July 2003 with free agency impending. Bobby Kielty was flipped that winter for ted Lilly, who left after 2006 as a free agent,