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Assessing the 1996 Blue Jays draft

A flamethrowing closer who flamed out, a thumping Dh who faded, and the long-time third base regular who got away

Billy Koch #44

The complete collapse of the Toronto Blue Jays in 1995 to their worst winning percentage since 1981 gave them their highest pick since picking 2nd overall in 1982 (and first time in the top half of the round since 1983). However, despite finishing tied for the worst record in MLB, the Jays only ended up with the 4th pick due to the practice of the alternating picks between the AL and NL, the NL starting in even years, and the Twins holding the tiebreak over the Jays.

1995 also marked the end of the positional nucleus that had carried them to such heights, with a deluge of free agents who departed, though it did give them a plethora of early picks for the 1996 draft. Type A free agent Roberto Alomar followed Pat Gillick to Baltimore, giving the Jays the Orioles top pick at 16th overall as well as a supplemental pick 31st overall.

Al Leiter and Devon White both ranked as Type B free agents, and both signed with Wayne Huizenga’s free-spending Marlins, thus netted the Jays their second and third round picks since the first round pick was protected (they were fortunate in this regard and Baltimore’s first round was just outside the top half). Paul Molitor was not offered arbitration, so they didn’t get any compensation for him.

For their part, the Jays signed Type A free agent Erik Hanson from Boston. Not only was that one one of Gord Ash’s bigger whoppers in terms of flushing cash own the toilet, but it cost them their very high second rounder at 39th overall. Thus the Jays ended up with four of the first 44 picks, and six of top 74.

Drafted/signed: 55/29 (53%)

High school/college/junior college breakdown: 28/16/11 (10/15/4 signed)

Pitcher/position player breakdown: 22/33 (12/22 and 17/33 signed)

Players signed

1996 June signed

The 1996 draft was considered unusually rich in pitching at the top. The Blue Jays were said to be interested in one of the top high school pitchers, a 6’5” righty from Pennsylvania with a mid-90s fastball named Matt White. The one small hang-up was that his advisor was a guy named Scott Boras, who had a price tag of $2.5-million to sign him (which would have shattered previous records).

So instead the pre-draft speculation, as reported by Larry Millson in the Globe and Mail, was the Jays would opt for Clemson fireballer Billy Koch, and hope White fell to their 16th overall pick. If that was indeed the plan or hope, it didn’t quite come to fruition as White went 7th overall to the Giants, but in the end it might have been for the better.

At the time there was an obscure provision in the Major League Rules that teams had to offer draftees contracts within 15 days of selecting them. Some teams weren’t aware of this and failed to do, including the Giants with White and the Twins with second overall pick Travis Lee. With Boras leading the charge, they were among four picks in the top 12 who petitioned for free agency. MLB granted it, and Lee signed with the expansion Diamondbacks for an unheard of $10-million. As did White shortly after with the (Devil) Rays. Alas, he never made the majors.

But turning back to the Jays and Koch, who teamed with first overall pick Kris Benson in the rotation that led Clemson to the College World Series. Drafted in the 4th round by his hometown Mets out of high school, Koch posted a 3.19 ERA and struck out 151 in 110 innings as a junior, though with 60 walks that indicated some struggles with control. That summer he pitched for the US Olympic team that won a bronze medal, going 0-1 with a 6.23 ERA.

Koch had a pure power profile, with an upper-90s fastball and power slider, the former which the Jays had clocked multiple times at 100 MPH at the ACC Tournament right before the draft (slider up to 91). Even then, there was speculation of him being a future closer, given the a bulldog mentality (apparently nicknamed “Captain Chaos”) and lack of a third pitch.

After signing for a team record $1.45-million in late-August, he debuted with Dunedin in 1997 but after just three starts required Tommy John surgery. He was back by 1998 and rebounded to post a 3.75 ERA with 108 strikeouts in 124.2 innings with Dunedin to rank as Baseball America’s 33rd prospect. After starting 1999 at Syracuse, in early May the Jays traded Robert Person to overhaul a struggling pen, and called him up. Within a couple weeks, he was the closer.

Koch had a good rookie season, and was even better in 2000, holding a career 2.97 ERA in 142.1 IP. It seemed with the Jays had found their closer, but he took a step back in 2001 and one of J.P. Riccardi’s first moved was trading him to Oakland for Eric Hinske. He rebounded in 2002, but gave up a critical home run to A.J. Pierzynski in the playoffs. The A’s flipped him to the White Sox for Keith Foulke, but Koch was never the same and his productive career over.


With the 16th overall pick, the Jays went in different direction, selecting high school infielder Joe Lawrence, an LSU commit from famed Louisiana baseball powerhouse Alfred M. Barbe High School. This selection, along with selecting infielder Brent Abernathy 44th overall in the second round from an Atlanta high school, was notable for the departure it represented from the Jays traditional draft playbook.

This series has documented how the Jays historically chased toolsy high school players, hoping that would eventually translate into baseball skills. Yet Abernathy and Lawrence were the second and third ranked high schoolers for pure hitting ability by Baseball America, while ranking significantly lower overall for a lack of tools (Abernathy was ranked 93rd overall by BA).

The hit tool is notoriously the hardest to project, especially for high school players, and in different ways, both these picks demonstrate that. Abernathy actually lived up very well to the profile, hitting at least .291 with good plate discipline but little power in each of his first first four years moving from low-A to AAA. He looked like a potential regular, but the Jays traded him to Tampa at the 2000 trade deadline. In the end, the hit tool never translated to the major league level.

After a slow start in pro ball, Lawrence seemingly busted out in 1998 with a .308/.442/.476, developing great discipline in addition to hitting for the average with a little power, ranking 99th by Baseball America. That carried over reasonably well in 1999 to Knoxville, but lacking a true position on the infield the Jays decided to try him behind the plate. That didn’t really take, and at the upper level the bats didn’t carry over either.


In between, with their supplemental pick 31st overall, the Jays took outfielder Pete Tucci from Providence College. This too was something of a reach, as he was ranked 74th by Baseball America from an unheralded baseball program. He didn’t really hit much hs first couple seasons, then exploded in 1998 across Dunedin and Knoxville. On the plus side, Gord Ash sold high that winter; on the negative side, it was more value going to the other with Woody Williams and Carlos Almanzar for Joey Hamilton.

In the third round, the Jays took Quebecer Yan LaChappelle, an undersized 5’10” pitcher who nonetheless threw 90 MPH with the ability to snap off a big curveball. He topped out in high-A, posting some good strikeout numbers but struggling with control and then injuries.

With compensation pick for Leiter was Clayton Andrews, a lefty from high school in Florida. His best season was repeating low-A in 1998 (2.28 ERA, 193K in 162 IP), but he struggled with control at the upper levels and only had a cup of coffee with the Jays before being traded.


The best big leaguer, improbably, was 9th rounder Casey Blake, an above average regular for almost a decade from 2003 onwards. He was another guy who put up a monster 1998 season in Dunedin and Knoxville, then back off some at the upper levels. He got a brief run for the last seven weeks of 1999, but not enough for the Jays to keep him around as he was lost on waivers.

On one hand, it’s an indictment of Gord Ash and his player development staff that they either didn’t know what they had or couldn’t tap into his potential. On the other hand, Blake bounced through multiple other organizations before landing in Cleveland and seizing a regular role at age 29. Not only did Cleveland get great production from him for six years, at the 2008 trade deadline they moved him for Carlos Santana.

The final notable pick is Josh Phelps, taken in the 10th round from way off the beaten path in the Idaho high school baseball ranks. His performance didn’t do much to distinguish himself until 1999, when he had a big year at Dunedin. repeating AA Knoxville in 2001, he mashed 31 home runs and .292/.407/.562 line to rank as BA’s #36 prospect. He shelled Triple-A pitching to start 2002, earning a mid-season callup. He hit so well with a 141 wRC+ that he was competitive in Rookie of the Year balloting despite under 300 PA.

It looked like the Jays had maybe found a little of the order masher (I remember being really excited by him), and he followed that up with a solid 116 wRC+ in 2003, but as a 1B/DH in the prime offensive era, it was always the highest of bars to clear. The power never quite manifested as more than a little better than average, and when his batting average regressed towards average he didn’t really profile.


Unsigned draftees

1996 June unsigned

As was common in the past few Blue Jays drafts, they took a lot of high schoolers as late round who didn’t sign, and very few ended up playing professionally. By contrast, they signed almost all their college juniors and seniors. Only one unsigned player ended up playing in the majors, and he was a darn good one too...but as we’ll soon see, that one has a happy ending.


Summary

1996 draft summary

Other players available: Eric Chavez went 10th overall to Oakland, and while Mark Kotsay didn’t have nearly the same peak he was a long time regular who went a pick before that. There was a run of quality future starters right after Lawrence, with R.A. Dickey, Eric Milton, Jake Westbrook and Gil Meche going in a run of five college pitchers.

Jacque Jones and Milton Bradley were quality big leaguer who went early in the second round, and Jimmy Rollins went to the Phillies two picks after Abernathy. Things dropped off from there, but Nick Johnson (3rd round), Joe Crede, Brad Penny (5th) and Doug Davis (10th) were all on the board. Phelps was almost a real steal in the 10th round.

Overall assessment/grade: C-to-D, depending on how one accounts for Blake. To the extent that he could have been had multiple times for nothing on waivers and was then released before things clicked in Cleveland, his career value doesn’t attach to draft rights. Unlike several earlier drafts where the Jays had many early picks but few quality players emerged, there were plenty of talent available in 1995. Though short-lived and thus perhaps underwhelming for a 4th overall pick, Koch having a few good years is not that bad an outcome. It’s whiffing on all the other high picks that sinks this grade.

Last Blue Jays connection to the 1996 draft: Phelps was the last member of the class to be in the organization, traded in 2004 for Eric Crozier who was lost on waivers the following May. Koch was signed as a free agent in January 2005 only to be released at the end of March and have the Jays eat the $975,000 contract.

But both of them were outlasted by both ends of the Koch trade. Justin Miller remained with the Jays until July 2005 (posting some good years from 2007-09), and Eric Hinske until August 2006 when he was shipped to Boston. As a reminder, Clayton Andrews, as compensation for Al Leiter, links all the way to Jesse Barfield and that first Blue Jays (June) draft.