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Assessing the 1989 Blue Jays draft

A couple near Hall of Famers go a long way in redeeming a number of miscues at the top

Toronto Blue Jays v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

In 1988 the Toronto Blue Jays once again experienced a big win regression, falling from 96 to 87 wins. It was very bad timing in that while those 87 wins left them tied for third, it was just three games short of outright winning the jumbled AL East so the 1987 total that came up short would have been more than enough.

The consolation was slightly better draft positioning with the 19th overall pick, and in addition they picked up their first ever supplemental pick, coming after the end of the second round when unwanted Type C free agent Rick Leach signed with Texas.

Drafted/signed: 76/35 (46%)

High school/college/junior college/other breakdown: 28/30/16/2 (15/14/6/0 signed)

Pitcher/position player breakdown: 34/42 (16/34 and 19 /42 signed)

Players signed

1989 June signed

According to the June 15th Globe and Mail, in the 1989 draft “the Jays returned to the practice of gambling on the best available athlete. In recent years, they had seen selecting to fill certain needs, particularly to build up the pitching the organization”. As we have seen, drafting for need at the top did not really pan out, and this pivot was obvious lookin at the demographics, as 11 of the top 20 draftees signed were from the high school ranks. The Jays were aggressive in pursuing upside talent as will be detailed further, but ultimately the major wins in this draft class were to come from the college ranks.

It was not to come from their top pick however. Curiously, despite Gord Ash commenting that “there weren’t a lot of outstanding college players available this year”, that’s exactly where the Jays went 19th overall with shortstop Eddie Zosky from Fresno State. Zosky was not aware of their interest and (according to him) had not even talked to them beforehand.

Baseball America had ranked him the eighth position player player and best middle infielder in the draft. Zosky had hit .363 in his junior season and was described by his college coach as “a contact hitter [who] can handle the bat...but it’s his fielding and throwing arm that are exceptional”. It was a floor-over-upside selection.

Though initially ticketed for a lower level, AA Knoxville was short on middle infielders and Zosky was assigned there directly out of the draft. It was a struggle as he hit .221/.256/.303 but he returned in 1990 to post a solid-if-unspectacular .271/.316/.367 line, somehow getting ranked as the #22 prospect by Baseball America. But thebat never came around more than that, preventing him from bringing in as a regular. After four year in AAA with some limited big league opportunities, his contract was sold to the Marlins in late 1994.

With the supplemental pick received for Leach, the Jays took Brent Bowers, a high school outfielder from Illinois. Alas, he was not to be the next Jesse Barfield, as his production at the plate never came together with very little power. Despite that, he did get added to the 40-man roster and advanced rung by rung to Syracuse before his becoming a free agent after 1995.

But the most interesting pick was the gamble the Jays took in the third round. John Olerud was an accomplished two-way player at Washington State, who had an incredible sophomore season in 1988 going 15-0 and a 2.94 ERA on the mound while hitting .464 with 23 home runs at the plate. He was expected to be a first round draft pick in 1989, but over the winter experienced headaches and collapsed before being diagnosed in February with a large and potentially deadly aneurysm.

After undergoing a risky but successful surgery, he returned to play in mid-April, hitting .359 with five home runs in the limited season left from a cold stop. Nonetheless, under the circumstances he was set on returning for his senior season and told teams not to bother drafting him. The Jays took him him anyway, having been one of the teams to contact him and had the window left slightly ajar in being given a figure that he would sign for. It was not absolute no.

Olerud turned down the initial offer of what would have been a record $400,000 signing bonus, before the Jays made the offer he couldn’t refuse in late August: a three year major league contract (with a $575,000 signing bonus), and like with Brian Milner in 1978, immediate addition to the major league roster when rosters expanded September 1st. The difference being that in 1989 the Jays were leading the AL East rather than headed for 100 losses. Nonetheless, he held his own, won a spot in Spring Training in 1990, and the rest is history as one of the few players to go directly to the majors without playing in the minors.

The final gem was to come much later. Jeff Kent was an infielder from Cal Berkeley taken in the 20th round, not even mentioned in the media. He drew some attention for the power he showed at St. Catharines (13 HR), and as he subsequently moved up the chain and got the strikeout numbers under control to post reasonable batting averages.

In 1992, he was one of the last cuts out of Spring Training, but was recalled a week into the season before the minor season began, jumped right over Triple-A. He posted solid numbers in his rookie season, but was firmly blocked by Roberto Alomar at his most-natural second base position. And so when the Jays needed to bolster the pitching staff mid-season with David Cone to put them over the top, he was the price. As they say, flags fly forever. And while he was solid for the next several seasons, it was not until years later that he emerged as the truly impact player of his 30s in San Francisco.

Unsigned draftees

1989 June unsigned A

The aggressive approach to the draft manifested in terms of high picks whom the Jays were unable to sign. With the 49th overall pick they selected outfielder Michael Moore, from Beverly Hills High School in Los Angeles, who was a potential first round talent if committed to baseball. But the nephew of NFL great Ahmad Rashad was strongly committed to UCLA on a football scholarship, and the Jays were not able to change his mind with an offer he couldn’t refuse.

The Jays thus squandered a pretty valuable pick (teams didn’t receive a pick the next year at that pont), but they were right about his future being on the baseball diamond. Going to school worked out for Moore, as he was selected 36th overall in the 1992 draft. Ultimately, however, he did not make the majors.

Fourth round pick Troy Bradford was one of top junior college pitchers in the draft, out of Cochise County Community College in Arizona. He was unsigned the previous year afterthe Brewers took him in the 24th round, and the Jays had no better luck as he was due to transfer to the University of Arizona. Once again, it worked out for Bradford, as he went even higher in 1990 to the Cubs.

The final unsigned player in the top 10 rounds was also of note, as Jeffrey Hammonds went on to a very solid 13 year MLB career after attending Stanford out of high school in New Jersey. He ended up the fourth pick in 1992, and while his career might be a little underwhelming in that context, the Jays did well to identify a talent even if they couldn’t close the deal.

16th rounder Pat Leahy was not the senator from Vermont who is currently the President Pro Tempore of the Senate as the longest serving in the majority (and third in line to the Presidential succession). In 1989 he had in fact already been in office 14 years and the daftee sharing his name was just four when he assumed office.

1989 June unsigned B

The 1989 draft had a very similar pattern of the last couple. The Jays were once again the second last team at the table, alternating picks with the Astros for four rounds from rounds 72 to 75 before bowing out and leaving Houston to make another 12 picks. But once again, it was a lot of flyers at the end. In the top 40 rounds, the Jays signed 32 of 41 picks (78%). In the last 35 rounds, they signed just three (9%). There were a couple players who briefly made the majors, but the majority didn’t even have professional careers.


1989 drafts summary

Other players available: Four picks after Zosky, the Red Sox took Mo Vaughn, followed by the Twins taking Chuck Knoblaugh two picks after that, so there was a lot of talent on the board just in terms of college position players. In fact, Zosky wasn’t even the best position player on his own team on the board, as Tom Goodwin was taken out of Fresno State by the Dodgers 22nd overall, going on to a successful (if not overly impactful) 14 year career.

The second round was quite uninspiring, with 60% of the 30 picks not reaching the majors, and just two who were more than replacement level with Brian Hunter the top end. Beyond Olerud, the third round had the likes of Tim Salmon, Shane Reynolds, Denny Neagle, and Phil Nevin. Jeff Bagwell went to the Red Sox at the end of the 4th round.

Overall assessment/grade: A. On one hand, getting two near Hall of Famers who provided plenty of value in their control years especially without a pick at the top should almost automatically result in an A+ grade. But on the other, Olerud was a unique situation, and beyond that there has to be some demerit for throwing away two high picks in the top 106. The A+ for this draft would really have to go to the Red Sox, who got Vaughn, Bagwell and Paul Quantrill even lower than the Jays.

Last Blue Jays connection to the 1989 draft: Olerud was not only the last player left in the organization just seven-and-a-half years later when Gord Ash dumped him for Robert Person, but it spawned a downstream transaction chain of some length in terms of links if not time. After a few years, Person was traded to Philadelphia in May 1999 (another of Gord’s trades that belong on the Ash heap of history) for a reunion with Paul Spoljaric. He in turn was packaged with Pat Hentgen six months later to St. Louis for Alberto Castillo, Lance Painter and Matt DeWitt who all departed in the second half of 2001.