In 1998, the Toronto Blue Jays finished with their best record since the 1993 World Series champions at 88-74 following a late season surge that came on the heels of the first large scale trade deadline sell-off in franchise history (moving Mike Stanley, Ed Sprague, Randy Myers and Juan Guzman).
Despite flirting with playoff contention for the first time in five years the Jays experienced continued declines in attendance. Paired with higher salaries and a declining dollar, that resulted in an austerity program to stem red ink that meant no significant offseason spending and additions despite an ascendant young core and finishing just four games shot. Consequently, for the first time since 1995, the Jays had a full complement of draft picks in the 1999 draft.
Drafted/signed: 29/50 (58%)
High school/college/junior college/other breakdown: 23/17/9/1 (9/16/4/0 signed)
Pitcher/position player breakdown: 34/16 (20/34 and 9/16 signed)
The financial austerity referred to above appeared to extend to the draft as well, when the Jays went well off the board in the first round to select a 6’5”, 180 pound third baseman from Puerto Rico whose league only played in the weekends by the name of Alexis Rios. He signed for $845,000, the only bonus below $1-million in the first 31 picks and the lowest awarded until the 37th pick in the supplemental round.
Pre-draft, Rios himself had only been expected to go in the third or fourth round, with Angel Pagan considered the top talent from Puerto Rico. It was a time of great concern about the future of Puerto Rican baseball after players from the island became subject to the draft a decade earlier. The media narrative focused on this apparent overdraft, and the fact that unlike most top players from the continent Rios did not have a scholarship to play at a top US college to use as leverage for a higher bonus.
For their part, the Jays claimed they simply really liked Rios, and were worried that with 21 picks in the supplemental round, he would not make it to their next pick 71st overall (normal third round territory). And in fairness to the Jays, they nailed it and it ended up being tremendous value pick.
Tim Wilken was quoted in the Toronto Star saying of Rios, “He’s a good sized kid, but slender. He puts on another 15, 20 pounds, he’s got a chance of being one of the better hitters we’ve drafted in the last ten years”. Other publications quoted his similarly, but saying one of one of, if the not best bat in the draft. In the end, that was pretty close to what happened.
It took a few years though, as Wilken predicted Rios first had to grow into adulthood. Rios signed right away, immediately moving to the outfield at Medicine Hat. He only hit full season low-A in 2001, and in each of those first three seasons posted an unremarkable OPS in the mid-600s with little power. Progress came at Dunedin in 2000 by hitting .300, but the real breakthrough came the next year when he torched the Eastern League to rank as Baseball America’s #6 prospect.
Rios came up early the next season after a pedestrian pitstop at Syracuse, immediately slotting in as a regular. It was defensively that he excelled with a cannon of an arm, as the bat and power continued to develop. 2006 saw the final step, as he grew into an impact regular with a high average and moderate power. He was the rare player who was a better professional than he was prospect.
Another point suggesting the Jays weren’t completely cheaping out on the draft, at least completely, is that they went very high school heavy with eight of their top 10 picks from the prep ranks. Of course, it’s possible they settled for lesser talent to do, and the record of those picks is not great. Second rounder Mike Snyder was a first baseman from California committed to Cal State-Fullerton. His bonus was in line with picks in a similar range, but his bat didn’t play in pro ball with the exception of one year repeating low-A.
Third rounder Matt Ford was a lefty high school pitcher from Florida. He posted decent results working his way up to Dunedin by 2002, but under new management the Jays didn’t protect him and he was taken in that year’s Rule 5 Draft by Milwaukee. He was able to stick and was even okay out of the back of their bullpen, but never returned to the majors.
The next six picks did not advance to Double-A, though 6th rounder D.J. Hanson showed enough promise in 2003 to briefly get added to the 40-man roster. He just couldn’t stay healthy, missing three full seasons. The exception of this trend was another Puerto Rican outfielder from San Juan, Rob Cosby. Like Rios, he too was slow to blossom, but posted interesting production as one of the first New Hampshire Fisher Cats in 2004-05 to get added to the 40-man. He spent a couple years on the 40-man but stalled out.
There were a couple more big leaguers further down t round out the draft class however. In the 13th round, the Blue Jays took Brandon Lyon from Dixie State College (now University), a junior college curiously located not in the south but in Utah. He signed the next year before the draft, rapidly ascending tot he big leagues by late-2001 and posted an impressive rookie run in the rotation. He regressed in 2002 and Riccardi let him go on waivers. He ended up having a solid career in the bullpen, returning in 2011 as part of the Happ/Astros deal.
But even better was finding Reed Johnson in the 16th round from Cal State-Fullerton. He was unremarkable in his draft year, but proceeded to post big numbers and push his way up the system as the scrappy outfielder with really strong OBPs. That made him a perfect fit for the Riccardi era. He had a nice run from 2003-06 in a platoon role, including a monster 2006. Unfortunately, he had the bac injury in 2007 and the Jays elected to move in, but any value from that pat of the draft is a big win.
This was more of a modern looking draft, in that the Blue Jays signed their first 22 picks, before then pivoting more to flyers in the later rounders. A fair number had subsequent professional careers, but none advanced to the majors.
Other players available: There was plenty of talent left on the board, including Brian Roberts, Carl Crawford, Brandon Phillips, and John Lackey over the next couple rounds. But none really exceeded Rios, at least in the draft control years, and the next 18 picks after hm were all busts so there’s no critiquing what they got. Justin Morneau went early in the third round; he would have made a really nice second rounder.
Overall assessment/grade: A-. Rios was a very good find in the middle of the first round who provided very strong value in his control years. Like Wells, it was the big extension that was more the issue. On top of that, they added two other quality major leaguers.
Last Blue Jays connection to the 1999 draft: The Jays let Rios and his big contact go on waivers to the White Sox in August 2009, the last connection to the draft. Just over a decade later, it’s an abnormally short closing of the books for a pretty successful draft. As mentioned, Lyon returned in 2011 but unrelated to the draft.