Returning to the top of the AL East in 1989 meant another move back in the draft order for the Toronto Blue Jays (of course, a tradeoff one is happy to make). Ironically, at 22nd overall they selected higher than in 1985 and 1988 despite coming coming second the previous year’s standings both times (and just three spots lower than 1989 when they tied for fourth and were just a game ahead of fifth).
As we’ll see in greater detail below, it was both a throwback to the past going high school heavy at the top with the first five picks (like in 1989, the Jays received a supplemental pick after the second round for the loss of Lloyd Moseby). That included another big gamble on a dual sport athlete, who eventually went onto more success on the gridiron. After that, the Jays executed a pretty hard pivot to the college ranks, that ultimately yielded a payoff of future big leaguers—in volume, if not impact.
Drafted/signed: 56/40 (71%)
High school/college/junior college/other breakdown: 20/29/7 (11/25/4 signed)
Pitcher/position player breakdown: 35/21 (26/35 and 14/21 signed)
Steve Karsay was a 6’3”, 190 righty from Christ the King High School in Queens, NY who had an above-average fastball up to 90 MPH, a promising curve, and a good delivery. Baseball America had him ranked as the 7th best pitcher in the draft, but there was some speculation he would go in the top five picks if guaranteed to sign, and the Jays reportedly considered him close talent wise to phenom Todd van Poppel, the top prospect in the draft (who topped the record package John Olerud got in 1989).
However, he had a strong commitment to LSU, telling teams he wouldn’t sign, and fell accordingly. The Jays were happy to gamble and undeterred, selected him. Ultimately a bonus pacakge reported at $325,000 per Baseball America (likely including scholarship money; today’s BA’s database reports the pure signing bonus at $180,000). He had a strong debut in St. Catharines, before moving to full season ball in 1991, already ranked as BA’s 38th overall prospect.
Karsay moved level-by-level through the system with strong performance at each of Myrtle Beach (1991), Dunedin (1992) and then Knoxville in 1993. He would have fit into the major league picture as soon as 1994, but when Pat Gillick needed a trade chip to land Rickey Henderson at the trade deadline and chase a second straight World Series, Karsay was the centrepiece. It was a steep cost, as Karsay was the 12th ranked prospect in baseball going into 1994, but again, flags fly forever even if Henderson wasn’t great for the Jays.
Ultimately, Karsay is more of a cautionary TINSTAAP tale. He was about as good as a pitching prospect comes, debuted with Oakland in August shortly after the trade and was solid. But four starts into the 1994 season, he hurt his elbow, and missed almost three years including Tommy John reconstruction. He made it back for 1997, wasn’t very good before missing the last two months with an elbow injury, and was traded to Cleveland. There, he moved to the bullpen and was one of the better relievers in baseball from 1999-2002. It still made for a very solid career, but well short of what would have been hoped for in mid-1993.
The Jays were not done gambling. With their next pick towards the end of the second round, they took Chris Weinke. He was a three-sport star at famed Cretin-Derham High School in St. Paul, Minnesota (alma mater of Paul Molitor and Joe Mauer), and was one of the more highly rated bats in the high school class. But more significantly, he was the top-rated quarterback in the country with a scholarship to powerhouse Florida State. Undeterred, the Jays took him and then broke out the chequebook with a $375,000 to land him just before he enrolled at FSU in August (and they’d have lost his rights).
Weinke’s bat showed promise early on, posting strong power and good patience at his first full season in Myrtle Beach, and then breaking out to .284/.370/.433 at Dunedin in 1993. Alas, that proved to the high watermark, as his bat stagnated in the upper minors from 1994-96, and after 1996 he opted to quit baseball and return to football and attend FSU (the Jays lost his rights in the minor league Rule 5 draft that winter). He ultimately won the Heisman Trophy in 2000 at age 28, and had a modest journeyman NFL career.
Yet another upside dual sport gamble gamble was Scott Burrell, a 6’6” righty described as having a loose arm whose combo was basketball/baseball. He had been the 26th overall pick in 1989, but opted to attend the UConn on a basketball scholarship. Apparently, he had trouble with grades, and that opened the door to the Jays making a run at him to play baseball.
And sign he did, but it didn’t work out for him on the baseball diamond either. He posted some promising numbers in 1991, but missed all of 1992 and into 1993 with arm trouble. At that point, he opted to switch back to the hard court. He went on to play 383 games in the NBA, so that that was the right call.
The other draftee whose signing was considered a coup was Felipe Crespo, out of Puerto Rico. Baseball America rated him as the 27th best position prospect and 56th overall draft prospect on the strength of his offensive potential, though Larry Millson noted cryptically in the Globe and Mail that “there’s some opinion he could be the best high school player in the draft”. I’m guess “some opinion” was the someone on the Jays front office.
In any event, Crespo showed solid offensive potential moving up the Jays’ farm system, often hitting near .300 with strong showing in Syracuse from 1995-97. Ultimately, he couldn’t put it together in the majors, and by the Spring of 1999 was out of options. The Jays had designs on contending, and he was at the end of the line with no spot.
On November 30, 1990, Larry Millson noted in the Globe and Mail that Baseball America had given the Jays an A for their draft, noting “The Blue Jays opened their pocketbooks and drafted and signed four players — Karsay, Weinke, Crespo, and Burrell — who would have been first rounds if thought signable”. The aggressive strategy of using financial resources to access talent was commendable, but in the end the bottom line results didn’t really materialize in terms of major league value.
1990 marked a departure from the pattern of the mid/late 1980s with scores of unsigned players, and much more like a modern draft. They signed 37 of their first 40 picks, a rate unprecedented in previous drafts but more commonly expected in years to come. Then they took flyers, largely on high school and junior college players. Only three of those 16 signed, and only three of the unsigned even played professionally. A few unsigned players made it to the upper minors, but none made the majors. It wasn’t a year where the Jays identified future talent but couldn’t get a deal done.
Other players available: Of the 26 players taken in the first round, four didn’t make the majors and another 13 were sub-replacement, for a 50% complete bust rate. Another few didn’t do much, so Karsay was a very good outcome as around the 10th best player in the first round taken near the bottom. Rondell White (~25 WAR career) went two picks later to the Expos and would be the one who stands out as a clearly better option on the board.
But the enemy of the perfect is not the very good. With the end of collusion the previous winter resulting in significant free agency movement, 1990 was the first year with a deep supplemental round (14 picks). Other than White, Karsay had the best career of any of those players. Even going through the next 100 picks into the 4th round, only Bob Wickman and James Baldwin are on par, so Karsay was a very good find for where they picked and what talent was available/in the mix.
There was a run of very good players starting in the late 4th round, with Garret Anderson, Ray Durham and Bret Boone going within 10 picks. Mike Hampton went early in the 6th round, Rusty Greer went in the 10th round, but all these guys were passed on multiple times by multiple teams.
Overall assessment/grade: B. If a draft produces a more-than-worthy first round pick and nine other major leaguers, it would normally be a well above average draft. But none of those others produced any impact whatsoever, many of their opportunities coming as a result of the 1995-96 rebuilding window. At the end of the day, while the aggressive strategy is to be applauded, the draft class essentially amounts to a really good reliever for a four year window.
Last Blue Jays connection to the 1990 draft: The last draftee left in the organization was Crespo, released in March 1999 less than a decade after the draft. However, in December 1995 two 1990 draftees were flipped to Philadelphia when the Jays got Paul Quantrill for Howard Battle and Ricardo Jordan. That was one of Gord Ash’s better moves, and Quantrill was a mainstay of the bullpen for six year through 2001 when J.P. Riccardi dumped his salary t the Dodgers for Luke Prokopec and Chad Ricketts. Neither lasted past 2002 with the Jays, thereby severing the last tie back to the 1990 draft.