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Assessing the 1988 Blue Jays draft

Ed Sprague was the decorated first round collegian, but the better big leaguer came much later

Ed Sprague

The last week collapse in 1987 was the worst of both worlds for the Toronto Blue Jays: the second best record in baseball was also the second best in the AL East and left them on the outside of the playoffs looking in; yet the second best record record in the American league left them with with the second worst draft pick pick positioning.

For the third time in 11 drafts, the Blue Jays would draft 25th overall (surprisingly, that’s only tied for the 6th most times drafting 25th overall). After missing twice, would they avoid the strikeout? It was another monster draft, with the Jays and Yankees going back-and-forth from rounds 67 to 73 before the former tapped out leaving the latter to make two more picks.

Drafted/signed: 31/73 (42%)

High school/college/junior college/other breakdown: 34/19/19/1 (8/13/9/1 signed)

Pitcher/position player breakdown: 32/41 (16/32 and 15/41 signed)

Players signed

1988 June signed

The Blue Jays apparently were targeting college pitching with their first round pick, but a run of 16 of them in the 24 picks ahead of them depleted the pool and instead they went with Ed Sprague Jr. He was the son of an eight year major league journeyman pitcher (and Orioles scout) who was a second team All-America third baseman at Stanford on teams that won back-to-back College World Series titles. He then played that summer on the USA team that won gold (as an exhibition sport) at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and thus didn’t debut professionally until 1989.

Seen as very advanced and described by scouts as a man among boys, after half a season at Dunedin he moved right to Syracuse. The bat was slower to come around, he as posted just a .627 OPS followed by .711 in 1990. But in 1991 he forced his way up with a hot start in Syracuse, and spent the rest of the season with the Jays playing here and there (61 games with a solid batting line). Problem was, third base as blocked by Kelly Gruber who had posted a career year in 1990.

So the Jays asked him to try catching, since his strongest defensive tool was a strong arm and a max effort style of play. that meant he spent most of 1992 at Syracuse. Gruber’s significant injuries, decline and departure re-opened the door at third, and Sprague seized the starter’s role fo the next half decade. The bat never really came around and he settled in as more f a second division regular whose hallmark was as a hardnosed “gamer” who played through injuries. The exception was a career year in 1996 with 36 home runs, though he admitted a few years later to using steroids.

After Sprague, the Jays pivoted hard to the prep side, though came up empty. They only signed eight high schoolers, five or which came in their next six picks. A couple reached the upper minors, but none reached the major leagues (Rob Montalvo came within about 48 hours of doing so as a 1995 replacement player). Ultimately no high school signee played in a single MLB game, though Rick Holifield did crack the 40-man roster (lost on waivers to Philadelphia in 1994).


Nestled among that run of high school players was a junior college draftee in the third round who did have a substantial career in David Weathers. though he didn’t put it together until later in his career. Weathers advanced quickly through the system as a successful starter, reaching AA Knoxville in 1991 and posting a 2.45 ERA in 139.1 innings to earn the big league call an bolster the bullpen for the stretch run. He was excellent in August, but tailed off in September.

He dealt with injuries in 1992, and after the season was exposed to the expansion draft and selected by the Marlins early in the second round. That got him the starting opportunity he wasn’t going to get on the contending Jays, but he didn’t capitalize in posting ERAs over 5.00. After that he bounced around, before moving to the pen and finding a niche with several excellent years in the early 2000s.

But by far the biggest success was an unheralded college pitcher from the University of Houston in the 28th round. Woody Williams immediately had success in pro ball. Despite that success, as a late round pick he was always the underdog in a position of having to prove it and knock down the door. He spent 1990-92 in the upper level, often having to settle for a swingman role, overlooked and unable to breakthrough a deep pitching staff with more prominent prospects ahead of him.

He was back in Syracuse in 1993 before finally getting the call just shy of age 27. He worked out of the pen for 1993-94, and most of 1995 even as the Jays rebuilt. 1996 finally brought the opportunity to start, but injuries limited him to just 10 starts. At age 30 in 1997, he finally broke through and established himself as a workhorse mid-rotation starter with a 4.35 ERA in 31 starts. 1998 was similar, but Gord Ash infamously flipped him to San Diego for Joey Hamilton and sign him to big money contract on the advice of Dave Stewart.

He would have been much better off off giving the money to Williams, who threw 1,603 innings over the next nine years with a 4.14 ERA (exactly league average). He never had a season over 3 WAR, but from 1997 to 2007 he was one of the most consistent and reliable quality innings eaters in baseball in an era when pitching was scarce. On one hand, there will always be the “what-if” question around not getting real opportunity until he was 30. On the other, perhaps it kept his arm fresh and allowed him to better capitalize on his earnings power by having a lot left in the tank in his 30s beyond the control years.


Unsigned draftees

1988 June unsigned A

As in the previous year, it was essentially a tale of two drafts. While overall the Blue Jays signed under half of their drafted players for the first time, in the first 41 rounds signed a more normal 63%. They signed all their picks on the top seven rounds, but then only signed two of the next nine which is somewhat unusual. However, only one of those reached the majors as a journeyman pitcher, so there’s a case to be made that their darts didn’t weren’t really landing.

Of the 15 players who didn’t sign in this group, 11 ended up playing professionally, with three making the majors. the one notable name who didn’t sign and went onto a significant career was Mike Matheny, who found his way to the Jays for a season in 1999 (before he really made his name in St. Louis). Still, there wasn’t anyone the Jays would really regret letting get away.

1988 June unsigned B corrected

After that, the Jays were largely taking flyers; of the last 32 picks just five signed. 19 of those were high school draftees, of whom just six even went onto to play professionally. Another 10 were junior college players, including Scott Erickson, who went on to a long, 15 year career as an inning eating mid-rotation starter. It was actually his third time being drafted later on, firstly out of high school and then twice of out San Jose City College; after transferring to Pac-10 powerhouse Arizona he went in the 4th round in 1989. So unless the Jays made a much more substantial offer, it clearly worked out for him.


Summary

1988 drafts summary

Other players available: Only nine of the 23 signed draftees ahead of Sprague had better careers, though all had significantly more impact ranging from Robin Ventura to Gregg Olson. Brian Jordan (30+ WAR) went five picks later to close out the supplemental round. The second round was barren, with Arthur Rhodes the best outcome and scarcely any other big leaguer of import. With full hindsight, Sprague was one of the better options n the board.

The third round produced Marquis Grissom for the Expos and future 2015 Blue Jay Darren Oliver; other than that Weathers had the best career (albeit with the value almost entirely beyond his control years). The real prizes were Luiz Gonzalez in the 4th round and Jim Edmonds in the 7th, with other notables including John Valentin (5th) and Tim Wakefield (8th).

Overall assessment/grade: B+. In the end, Sprague’s career was quite modest considering how long he was an everyday player, but it’s still a successful pick. Add in two other quality big leaguers, even if their career value was back- weighted to their 30s and beyond team control gained through drafting, and it’s a solid double if not a home run.

Last Blue Jays connection to the 1988 draft: Woody Williams outlasted Sprague by just over four months as the last remaining draftee in the organization and, though that trade proved to be one of Gord Ash’s more ill-advised, Joey Hamilton extended the transaction chain through to August 2001 when he was released and the books were closed on the Blue Jays 1988 draft class and its progeny.