In 1996 the rebuilding Toronto Blue Jays rebounded to more respectable 74-88 finish, which surprisingly was only the seventh worst record in MLB and landed them the fifth overall pick. That’s because it was the AL’s year to pick first and the Jays edged out the Royals for the third worst record in the Junior Circuit. The Twins actually benefited a little more, receiving the ninth overall pick despite finishing within spitting distance of .500 with 78 wins).
For the second straight year, the Jays lost their pick near the top of the second round to Boston as compensation for signing a Type A free agent. Suffice to say that signing Roger Clemens worked out slightly better than Erik Hanson. Adding insult to injury for Boston, neither of the players they selected as compensation reached the majors.
Drafted/signed: 66/31 (47%)
High school/college/junior college/other breakdown: 29/16/19/2 (12/13/4/2 signed)
Pitcher/position player breakdown: 36/30 (18/36 and 13/30 signed)
At the top of the 1997 draft, the Jays were focused on adding hitters “to address the weakness in their system, from class A to the major leagues”, according to Tom Maloney in the Hamilton Spectator. I note this because while it’s true that the 1996-97 Jays were quite punchless (13th and 15th in AL run scoring), within a couple years their lineup was near the top of the AL and their downfall was a chronic lack of pitching. It’s a good example of why MLB teams shouldn’t draft based on current (perceived) needs.
Accordingly, four of the top five picks were position players. That started with Vernon Wells from Bowie HS in Arlington, Texas fifth overall. While committed to baseball powerhouse the University of Texas, he was eager to sign and the initial reports were that an agreement had already been reached on a $1.6-million bonus. Wells had athletic bloodlines, as his father had played in the CFL, debuting in the same as Warren Moon.
In the end, the bonus positioning didn’t really matter, as Wells was a bit of a “reach” in that he was ranked as the 18th draft prospect by Baseball America, and that was after rising in his senior season. Wells himself didn’t think he’d go higher than 9th overall to Minnesota, or as low as Atlanta at the back of the first round. In his high school season, he hit eight home runs and had 24 steals in under 100 plate appearances.
Wells’ draft profile was having average-to-plus tools across the board. Area scout Jim Hughes said “He has speed, a good arm. He can hit for power. He’s a good centre fielder. He has good instincts.” to Larry Millson in the Globe and Mail. Maloney quoted scouting director Tim Wilken saying “He’s a guy with good instinct and a guy we had rated very high on our list. In fact, I can tell you he was fourth on our list.”.
Assigned quite aggressively in his debut to St. Catharines (mostly college draftees), Wells immedately made good on those projections by hitting .307/.377/507 to rank 52nd overall by BA. 1998 was a little more pedestrian in low-A (though still very good), but 1999 was his big breajout when he started at Dunedin and torched high-A, did the same in at pit stop at AA Knoxville before carrying it over to Syracuse.
The Jays were short in the outfield with slim hopes at the wild card, so they brought Wells up for September as a hail-Mary. That was the bridge too far, and Wells needed a couple season at Syracuse before coming up for good in late-2001. He certainly made good on the pick, even if in the end he was known more for the massive $126-million extension the Jays soon wished they hadn’t offered after 2006 (that only kicked for 2008-14).
Their next pick was also an outfielder, Billy Brown from Florida Atlantic who had a football scholarship to Florida State, with baseball secondary. Eventually he switched to baseball and transferred to FAU, hitting .296/.344/.452 his draft year. The hit tool carried over, but the power never came. Fourth rounder Woody Heath was their first pitcher drafted, out of junior college. His first couple years were promising, but stalled out at high-A with control problems.
It was the fifth round where they hit pay dirt with Michael Young, a shortstop Santa Barbara. There was nothing written about him at the time, but he had posted really high averaged his last two years in a conference known for pitching. He gradually moved towards second base from short as he moved up, but just kept hitting.
There was never much power, and he was “down” to .275/.340/.426 at Double-A when traded in July 2000 for Esteban Loaiza. That’s obviously one the Jays would want to have back for the next decade, but in fairness, it was more the statistic profile of a MLB contributor than above average regular. But he just kept hitting with the same type profile, posting a .300 MLB average.
A final notable pick on the first day was their last in the 20th round. 6’9” lefty Mark Hendrickson had been drafted five times previously, first out of high school and then annually out of Washington State where he was focused on basketball. In 1996, he was drafted in the second round of the NBA draft, and kicked around various teams for a couple years. The Jays took a flyer anyway.
By the spring of 1998, he had been released and was ready to give baseball a shot. He signed in May and reported to Dunedin, where he was quite impressive given the layoff. He moved towards the majors in fits and starts as a swingman, struggling in his first go at the upper minors before figuring it out. He debuted in 2002 with some solid work, and earned a starting spot in 2003. In the end, he was never more than a fringy-back end innings eater, but by any measure a major league career over 1,000 innings is a resounding success.
But there an even bigger success lower down. In 1996, the Jays had drafted Orlando Hudson as a shortstop in the 36th round out of Darlington High School in South Carolina. They didn’t land him, but took him again in 1997 out of Spartenburg Methodist junior college on the 43rd round.
He was slow to distinguish himself in the minors, but came on very strong in 2001, hitting above .300 across Double-A and Triple-A, while starting for the US team at the World Cup where he hit .429. With the Jays rebuilding, he was seen as a potential to win the starting second base job from Homer Bush (despite being considered a better third baseman, but blocked by Eric Hinske).
He didn’t help his cause the next spring by referring to new GM J.P. Riccardi as dressing like a pimp (even though it was meant as a compliment), dispatched the next day. But he banged down hitting .300 in Syracuse to get the call-up, and seized the starting 2B job for the next several years. Roughly a average hitter, exactly how good he was depends on how good you think he rated defensively, but he was at least an average regular for the better part of the decade. By any measure, that’s a smashing success in the 43rd round.
In addition to the usual run of high school flyer late in the draft, in 1997 the Jays heavily combed the junior college ranks with 19 draftees including four they took out of high school in 1996. They signed only four, though Hudson more than made the strategy pay off. Dave Steffler had been previously drafted by them in 1994 as well, and they’d redraft Cameron Reimers in 1998.
As was typical of this era, most of the unsigned did not have subsequently professional careers, though 10 were re-drafted with nine signing and playing. The Jays identified four future big leaguers, with most of the rest reaching the upper minors. The best of those was long-time outfielder Brad Hawpe, though Billy Traber emerged to go 16th overall in 2000 out of Loyola Marymount. Chad Qualls went in the second round that year, and had solid bullpen career. Sean “Not Shawn” Green also was a big league reliever.
Other players available: Between Wells, J.D. Drew (2nd overall) and Troy Glaus (3rd), the top of the 1997 draft produced three excellent major league careers. The only first rounder who had a better career was Lance Berkman (~50 WAR), who went 16th overall to his hometown Astros out of Rice. Late in the second round Chase Utley went unsigned by the Dodgers out of high school in Long Beach, California.
In the third round, Jeremy Affeldt and Scott Downs went shortly after the Jays pick, though the latter’s career value with the Jays came well beyond his draft control. Chone Figgins was a quality player in the fourth round, and Tim Hudson a borderline Hall of Fame find in the 6th round. Cliff lee went unsigned out of an Arkansas high school in the 8th round.
Overall assessment/grade: A+. Picking at the top would tend to increase the bar for success, though not having a second round pick offsets that. Regardless, in a year where a dozen teams got nothing (or very little given their picks) and another half dozen did poorly, the Jays came away three above average/impact long-time regulars, plus Hendrickson who had several quality years. No team came close to matching their 60+ WAR of draft control value.
Last Blue Jays connection to the 1997 draft: Wells was the last member of the draft class in the organization for a half decade after Hudson was traded in December 2005 until his albatross of a contract was stunningly dumped on the Angels in January 2011 for Juan Rivera and Mike Napoli. Napoli was flipped for Frank Francisco, who brought back a supplemental pick in the 2012 draft used on Matt Smoral. When not injured, Smoral pitched in the new system until he was taken in the 2016 AA Rule 5 draft by the Texas Rangers, nearly two decades later.
There’s a second transaction chain that extended longer at the big league level, and indirectly still has a tie today, 25 years later. Hudson was traded to get Troy Glaus, who in turn was traded for Scott Rolen two years later. Rolen was flipped in 2009 for Zach Stewart, with Edwin Encarnacion and his guaranteed contact included as a salary dump. He was lost on waivers the next winter, formally ending the chain in 2010.
But Oakland non-tendered him after they couldn’t work out a cheap deal in lieu salary of arbitration, and he signed back in Toronto and of course blossomed. Rejecting a qualifying offer as a free agent after 2016, he brought back the 2017 draft pick used to acquire Nate Pearson (interestingly, like Hudson, drafted out of junior college).