After the extreme disappointment that was the revamped 1997 Toronto Blue Jays, in 1998 they had their third straight top-10 overall pick. Also for the third straight year, their early second round pick was given over to a division rival as compensation for signing a Type A free agent. In this case it was to Baltimore for the signing of closer Randy Myers, which...did not work out well. Though Gord Ash was able to get out from under the worst of it thanks to desperation by the San Diego Padres.
In addition, their third round pick went to Montreal for signing Darrin Fletcher, leaving them with just the single pick in the top 100. 1998 marked the first year of the 50 round draft limit, though it took the Jays some time to adjust as they still took plenty of high school flyers and came away with just 22 signees (tied with 2001 for the lowest number after the post-expansion days when they were still building out a farm system).
Drafted/signed: 48/22 (46%)
High school/college/junior college breakdown: 23/19/6 (6/14/2 signed)
Pitcher/position player breakdown: 25/23 (12/25 and 10/23 signed)
Felipe Lopez was a shortstop, originally from Puerto Rico but drafted out of Lake Brantley HS in the Orlando area after his family moved in the early 1990s. He had quite a bit of adversity early in life between his mother leaving when he was three, a stepmother dying, and his father being abusive for perceived lack of performance on the baseball field. Him and his siblings had been placed in the care of an aunt, and it was amidst this tumult that Baseball America wrote pre-draft of concerns about “makeup”.
Lopez had some baseball bloodlines, with an uncle (Reynaldo) in the Brewers system who took a year off playing in 1997 to work with him and upgrade his hitting to match his defensive value. He was rated the #19 draft prospect by Baseball America, the top defensive high school player (“smooth as silk” shortstop actions) and top high school middle infielder.
His advisor had initially sad it would take $3-million to sign him, though after the draft conceded that was to “separate wheat from chaff” in terms of interest, and with a junior college commitment he had less leverage than most (though the Jays would retain his rights until the next year’s draft instead of losing them when he showed up on campus. In the end, the Jays signed him in early August for a franchise record $2-million.
His first stop was St. Catharines, where he hit the cover off the ball for a month. Moving up to full season low-A in 1999, he was solid offensively, ranking as BA’s #67 prospect, albeit with the yellow flag of a high strikeout rate (157 K). He jumped to Double-A in 2000 and his numbers regressed, but he held his own. In 2001, he posted a 842 OPS at Syracuse to earn the call to the majors in early-August, and seemed poised to be a regular if not stardom.
With Alex Gonzalez traded that winter, the starting SS job was his to start 2002, but he struggled and was sent down midway through the season. I turned out he was not a J.P. Riccardi player, surprisingly traded to Cincinnati in a four team deal for pitching prospect Jason Arnold. The same pattern repeated in 2003, but he was better when brought up in 2004 and really broke out in 2005 with a 116 wRC+ and 4+ WAR year. It looked like a mistake, but Lopez’s hallmark was inconsistency and he bounced up and down as a voltile second division regular for the rest of his career.
The Jays had drafted Ryan Bundy in 1995 out of high school in Washington State, and went back for the catcher after three years at the University of Washington in which he hit .300 each year. That ability didn’t translate to pro ball. Joe Orloski, a sixth round righty out of high school in Arizona showed some promise as a reliever, added to the 40-man after 2001, but topped out at AA after being lost to the Mets on waivers a year later.
There was another future major league regular though, and in hindsight I don’t understand how they handled him. Jay Gibbons was drafted in the 12th round as an outfielder out of UCLA, a strong program from a premier conference. Despite that, he was assigned to rookie Medicine Hat rather than St. Catharines, where he shelled the pitching to the tune of .397/.457/.700 with 98 RBI in 73 games.
He moved up to full season in 1999, first low-A then high-A, hitting greater than .300 at both stops with power (25 HR and 61 extra base hits combined). He did the same in 2000 in Double-A, but was not moved up to Triple-A midseason. It would seem to be that would have been a useful evaluation point, as after the season he was left unprotected.
The Orioles took him in the Rule 5 draft, and he not only stuck but was an above average hitter and slotted into their starting lineup. He remained such for the next five years before a series of injuries caught up to him. A great find, but ultimately squandered.
The final big leaguer was Bob File, taken out of Division-II Thomas Jefferson Uiversity. Baseball-Reference lists him as a 3B, but in the papers he’s listed as a pitcher. In any event, he only pitched in the Jays system, immediately finding success as a closer and ascending the system rapidly (assigned to AAA to start 2000 in his second full year). He had a really nice debut late in 2001, albeit with mediocre peripherals, and he wasn’t the same guy after 2002 in terms of results.
Lee Delfino was a shortstop from Pickering HS in Ajax who had excelled for the bronze medalist Team Canada at the 1997 World Juniors Championships, committed to East Carolina. That’s where he ended up, stepping right into the starting lineup as a freshman and hitting over .300 all three years. The Jays ended up redrafting him as a junior in 2001, this time in the second round. He played three years in the system, but couldn’t find the hitting stroke in the pro ranks he displayed in college.
The only future major leaguer was another Ontarian, Adam Stern from London, who was selected in the 3rd round in 2001 out of the University of Nebraska and got a few cups of coffee in the late 2000s. Isaac Iorg was the son of minor league coach and longtime Blue Jays Garth, who went on to a season at BYU before emarking on a two year Mormon mission, after which the Jays drafted him again in 2001 (this time signing him).
Other players available: Long-time slugger Carlos Pena went two picks later to Texas, and Jeff Weaver went four after that to Los Angeles. The real prize however was CC Sabathia, who went to Cleveland 20th overall out of high school in California. Other future regulars who went before the Jays picked again in the 4th round included Aaron Rowand, Adam Dunn, and Brandon Inge.
The next few rounds weren’t very fruitful, with Javier Lopez the only notable at the back of the 4th, Aubrey Huff late in the 5th, and Bill Hall midway through the 6th. The 7th round was where the action was, with Matt Holliday going to the Rockies, and longtime catchers John Buck and David Ross shortly after. Eric Byrnes went early in the 8th, with Jack Wilson and Morgan Ensburg in the 9th.
Overall assessment/grade: C/C+. Lopez was ultimately a disappointment for a high first round pick, but he had a long major league career. That partial miss is offset by lowered expectations of not having the second and third round picks. There’s credit in finding Gibbons, even if they didn’t benefit. It was a draft were only about eight teams were totally skunked, and overall the Jays’ performance was somewhere in the 15th-20th range.
Last Blue Jays connection to the 1998 draft: File was the last player at the major league level, last appearing in 2004. Jason Arnold was acquired for Lopez and was in the system until 2006, but it was Ryan Houston who provided the longest tie. Since he attended junior college, the Jays were able to retain his rights until the 1999 draft, and signed him just before. He spent the next six years climbing through the system, and was added to the 40-man in October 2005 to forestall becoming a minor league free agent. He never made the majors, but stuck around until the end of 2007 when he was claimed on waivers.