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Assessing the 1995 Blue Jays draft

Only three big leaguers, so it’s good one of them ended up in Cooperstown

Blue Jays v Dodgers Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

After the Toronto Blue Jays stumbled to a 55-60 finish in 1994 prior to the season-ending strike in their second World Series defense, the one small silver lining was having the highest pick (in their own right) since 1987 at 17th overall in the 1995 draft.

It was a quiet offseason on the free agent front with no major additions costing picks. Dave Stewart and Pat Borders departed, but the best opportunity to add compensatory picks would have been Todd Stottlemyre. Due to the lack of collective agreement and owners’ plan to impose a new one, the normal offseason processions were deferred. When the dust settled in April with most of the offseason tasks jammed into a couple weeks, the Jays opted to acquire David Cone from Kansas City and did not offer arbitration to Stottlemyre.

Drafted/signed: 59/28 (47%)

High school/college/junior college breakdown: 34/14/11 (11/13/4 signed)

Pitcher/position player breakdown: 25/34 (9/25 and 19/34 signed)

Players signed

1995 June signed

According to the Toronto Star’s report the next day, the Jays preferred to take a college pitcher with their first round pick, but there was a run on them before they picked. A couple ended up busts (Jonathan Johnson and Mike Drumright 7th and 11th overall), and a couple worked out well and had careers (Matt Morris and Mark Redman).

Two high school righties went immediately before the Jays to the Red Sox and Giants. Andy Yount and Joe Fontenot didn’t work out, but fortunately the third from Arvada West HS in Colorado fared a little better. Roy Halladay was a 6’6”, 200 pound pitcher whose fastball had touched 94-95 according to area scout Bus Campbell while normally sitting 89-93, with a knuckle-curve that “drops off the table”.

Not surprisingly, Halladay had dominated the high school ranks, striking out 105 in 63 innings while allowing almost as hits (24) as walks (23). Despite the thin air, he allowed just one home run and that was two years previously. Ranked 27th overall by Baseball America and 9th among pitchers, he was committed to the University of Arizona, but he was pretty clear that was more a fall back option.

He signed at the end of June, reporting to GCL. In 1996, he was assigned directly to Dunedin, and posted a 2.73 ERA despite the aggressive placement and big jump in competition. That earned him the #23 prospect ranking, and he spent most of 1997 in Syracuse, another big leap. This time he more held his own, returning in 1998.

The rest is history. Called up at the end of 1998, a no-hitter broken up with two out in the 9th by Bobby Higginson in his second start, the worst 50+ inning season by ERA in MLB history in 2000, the reboot, emerging as an ace in 2002, the Cy Young in 2003, the workhorse of the 2000s, the no-hitter and playoff perfect game with the Phillies in 2010, the posthumous Hall of Fame induction in 2019. One could say it worked out.

With their second pick, the Jays took Craig Wilson from Huntington Beach in California, a catcher who was rated the second best high school bat in the draft class. The position was a bit more of a question mark, but the Jays thought he could handle catching, where the bat would be a real plus. He posted a decent production through 1996, but his stay in the system was short as after that season in low-A he was part of the six-player trade to Pittsburgh as the Jays moved back into win-now mode.

Wilson continued moving up the chain with very good offensive production, but the catching thing never really took and he ended up at the other end of the defensive spectrum. The bat more than played in the majors, as he posted a robust 122 wRC+ over 1,845 PA in the first half of the 2000s. The lack of defensive value however prevented him from breaking out beyond the second division, but in the grand scheme, it’s actually an above average return on a second round pick.

The Jays went almost exclusively to the high school for the rest of the top 10 rounds, but it largely a bust. Jeff Maloney (3rd round), Mike Whitlock (4th round) and Canadian Blaine Fortin (6th) round didn’t hit at all in pro ball. After the first dozen rounds, they pivoted back to college players, many of them seemingly to fill rosters and were out of the system in short order.

An exception to the high school run at the top was Ryan Freel, taken in the 10th round from a Florida junior college. A decent 1997 season wit Dunedin got him protected on the 40-man roster. Despite reaching Syracuse in 1998, he was squeezed off the 40-man in the spring of 1999, which ended up largely a lost season. He rebounded in 2000 at Syracuse and was added back, briefly getting a cup of coffee in 2001.

He was again sent outright after 2001, electing free agency. It was only after catching on with Cincinnati in 2003 that he got another shot, posting a solid couple months and earning a larger role. He was a solid contributor from 2004-06, posting over 1,500 PA before tailing off after turning 30 and suffering a significant head injury in 2007. That led to a spiral of issues and he committed suicide in 2012. Posthumously, he was the first MLB player dianosed with the CTE brain injury that’s an epidemic in the NFL.

Unsigned draftees

1995 June unsigned

In the end, the Jays signed under half of their 1995 draft picks, one of the their lowest rates ever. But it was largely a demographic story, as all but one of 14 college picks signed (and right at the end, suggesting a flyer who probably indicated be wasn’t going to sign). On the flip side, just 13 of 34 high school draftees signed, dropping to just 6 of 26 after the top 10 rounds.

Among the 31 unsigned, there was one who got away. Given that he was later acquired and spent three years in the Jays rotation from 2004 to 2006, I was surprised to have been unaware that the Jays originally drafted Ted Lilly out of a California junior college in 1995. Interestingly, he didn’t sign out of the 13th round, but did sign the next year despite going in the 23rd round to the Dodgers.

Perhaps it was more about being a year older/more mature at 20 rather than 19. in any event, he immediately carved up the Northwest League in his draft year, then turned in another excellent season in 1997 (3.48 ERA, 158 in 134.2) in high-A. A couple years later he was in the majors, one of those lefties who clicked later in his career as he was solid in his late-20s but an above average starter in his early 30s.

Two other unsigned draftees made the majors, with Brandon Duckworth throwing a not insignificant 500 inning. Notably, for a pitcher, he also hit very well (career 47 wRC+).


1995 draft summary

Other players available: After a couple of meager years, the 1995 draft was a relative bonanza. Not surprisingly, Halladay was the best player by WAR in the first round, though narrowly over Todd Helton selected 8th overall by his hometown Rockies. Five others selected before had excellent careers as regulars or better, including future Blue Jay Jose Cruz Jr, 3rd overall. Interestingly though, after Halladay there was not much for the last 13 picks of the first round before Jarrod Washburn went leading off the second round.

After that, the next 15 picks before Wilson produced little impact, with 13 picks replacement level of failing to make it. There was plenty of talent available on the board however, and two picks later future Hall of Famer Carlos Beltran went to the Royals (what a draft class that would have been). Sean Casey and Brett Tomko went back-to-back a few picks later, with Randy Winn and Branson Arroyo in the first half of the third round.

A few other notable later picks were right around the Jays. In the 4th round, the Giants picked Russ Ortiz right before the Jays picked; Joe Nathan went similarly to them in the 6th round. The Mets got A.J. Burnett in the 8th round right after the Jays picked.

Overall assessment/grade: A. Get a Hall of Famer who, even with some fits and starts, wins a Cy Young and had a couple Cy-type season during his control years, it’s a home run. Add in a couple big leaguers who had substantial careers to boot, although Freel’s came after his draft control elapsed.

Last Blue Jays connection to the 1995 draft: Of course it’s through Halladay. After the second longest continuous tenure in franchise history and third most overall at 14.5 years, the December 2009 trade to Philadelphia brought back three prospects. The ultimate end of the chain came when Devon Travis became a free agent after the 2019 season, almost 25 years later.