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Assessing the 1991 Blue Jays draft

A draft that could have defined the Jays future (and heavily shaped their late-1990s), it yielded a couple of top 10 prospects but never quite came together

Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

The 1990 offseason marked a watershed for the Toronto Blue Jays, and that had a significant impact on their 1991 draft. After having only signed one free agent that required draft pick compensation (Dennis Lamp in 1984) and only lost one that brought back another team’s draft pick (Roy Howell in 1980), the wide open post-collusion free agent market resulted in significant upheaval.

The Blue Jays lost two Type A free agents, as mid-September acquisition Bud Black signed in San Francisco. While the trade failed to result in overtaking the Red Sox, in effect it amounted to the Jays trading Alex Sanchez and Steve Cummings for two top-40 draft picks, which proved to be excellent value. Picks in the first half of the first round were protected, so getting the 16th overall pick was almost the optimal outcome. Additionally, the Jays lost George Bell to the Cubs, whose 12th overall pick was protected so the Jays got their second round pick (56th overall) and a sandwich pick.

For their part, the Jays lost their first round pick for signing Type A free agent Ken Dayley from St. Louis. Dayley had been a durable, effective reliever for the previous six seasons, but the Blue Jays bought right before he fell apart. Dayley’s signing proved to be an expensive mistake just in financial terms, to say nothing of the 21st overall pick lost on top of that.

The net of all that was the Jays gained three draft picks in the top-60: two first round supplemental picks, a second round pick, traded the 21st overall pick in the first round for the 16th pick. The Cardinals also got a first round supplemental pick, and the Mets also netted one after the second round when the Jays signed Pat Tabler (an association which continues to pay, ahem, dividends to the current day). Co-incidently, Tabler had been traded for Bud Black two years earlier.

Drafted/signed: 61/41 (67%)

High school/college/junior college/other breakdown: 22/26/13 (11/23/7 signed)

Pitcher/position player breakdown: 28/33 (20/28 and 21/33 signed)

Players signed

1991 June signed

With that 16th overall pick, the Jays once again gambled on a very tough sign and ultimately flexed their financial muscle to land him. In this case, it was Shawn Green, an outfielder from Tustin High School in Orange County/LA who was committed to Stanford. In this case, it wasn’t excelling in another sport, but the combination of excellent baseball program and academics that caused other teams to shy away.

The Blue Jays changed his mind with a package including a a $700,000 signing bonus plus paying for him to attend Stanford in the winter. It was the third largest draft bonus ever given out, behind 1st overall pick Brien Taylor and and Todd van Poppel in 1991. Pat Gillick described Green as “the best high school hitter in the draft”, even ahead of Dimtri Young who went 4th overall and was considered tp position player.

Gillick nailed the profile: “Green is along the lines of a guy who’ll hit .300 with 15 home runs. He’s an outstanding hitter”. And that’s essentially what Green did, jumping right to Dunedin and holding his own at age 19 in hitting an empty .273. That improved to .283 in Knoxville, and then he really went off at Syracuse in 1994 with a .344/.401/.510 line to be Baseball America’s #6 prospect. He was in the majors from for good from 1995, and despite butting heads with Cito Gaston hit .285/.337/.474. In his mid-20s, the power came in probably moe than was expected, and he emerged as a star.


They followed the same recipe to land another draftee in Alex S. Gonzalez, a shortstop out of Miami who commitment to the University of Miami where his father was a professor was considered so strong that he only went in the 14th round. I’ve been unable to find any sources listing his exact bonus, but in 1994 Pat Gillick told Milt Dunnell of the Toronto Star, “I gave him a lot of money” to convince him to sign.

It was likely first round money however, as Gonzalez’s tools were very well regarded. Baseball America ranked him their #62 prospect that winter (despite a modest 1991 pro debut) whereas Green was unranked. It stayed that way the next two years (#47 and #28) as he moved through the system with a combination of solid offensive production and outstanding glovework.

In 1994 he won the starting SS job in Spring Training straight out of Double-A, but struggled badly for a month before going down to Syracuse. He posted another solid season, peaking as BA’s #8 prospect (though just edged out by Green). He too was up for good in 1995, and was the starter for the next seven years. Ultimately, the bat never blossomed and he was more a second division regular. In hindsight, the high strikeout rates (for the era) in the minors were a yellowish-red flag masked by decent batting averages.


The first supplemental pick was Jeff Ware, a righty out of Old Dominion. He pitched for the US Pan-am team before signing, debuting in 1992 at Dunedin. He posted a solid half season (2.63 ERA in 75.1 IP), but was dogged by a tender elbow that didn’t get better. He missed the next two years, returning in the second half of 1994, but it never came together. He had a decent start with Syracuse in 1995, which led to a call-up but he struggled in a couple cups of coffee and was lost on waivers in late 1996. He returned to the organization as a minor league pitching coach in 2014, currently with Buffalo.

The two second rounder were also used on pitchers. The 56th overall pick from the Cubs was used to select high school RHP Trevor Mallory. As is often the case was this demographic, it didn’t click for him in pro ball. The 65th was college lefty Dennis Gray from Long Beach State, whose performance was unremarkable, though did make it onto the 40-man for a stint.

More successful was third rounder Chris Stynes, who hit his way up the chain before being traded to Kansas City before the 1995 season for David Cone. He had a respectable 10-year career with a couple solid-average seasons, but the Jays were not made to regret that move as Cone had an ace-like (unfortunately, when the Jays sold at the deadline they didn’t get anything back either).

Jose Silva was taken in the 6th round out of high school in California, and put himself on the map with a big low-A season in 1993 (2.53 ERA, 161K in 142.2 innings). He stagnated in the upper minors due a limited ability to harness his big raw stuff, and he was a headliner in the six prospect prospect deal in late 1996 for Dan Plesac, Orlando Merced and Carlos Garcia. Silva bounced around for six MLB seasons, but could neve harness the stuff.

Two other draftees — Ken Robinson and Steve Sinclair — had couples of coffee. The most successful pitcher however ended up as Ben Weber., who had a solid run with the Angels from 2000-03. But that only came after he was out of affiliated baseball for a couple years and reinvented himself following his 1996 release by the Jays.


Unsigned draftees

1991 June unsigned

The one demerit is that the Jays could not sign one of their supplemental picks, Dante Powell, and thus wasted the 42nd overall pick. Three years later, he was a first round pick (22nd overall) to the Giants out of Cal State Fullerton, but he had just a cup of coffee. Another top 10 round high school also made the majors, but again, no impact.

The Jays took a lot of flyers later on, and consequently only signed half the 22 high school picks they made (compared to almost 90 percent of their college picks), with one going onto a significant MLB career in Ryan Franklin. He was drafted the next year out of junior college, almost in the same spot, and went to have a couple nice years as a starter in the early 2000s.


Summary

1991 draft summary

Note: Green had just over six years service after the 2000 season, and in the modern context would have almost certainly been held down in 1995 to get an extra year of control. Adding in 2001 to adjust for that would bring his draft control to ~22 WAR.

Other players available: Green had the second best career of 1991 first rounders, behind Manny Ramirez who went a few picks ahead of him. The Jays nailed the green picks, even with the caveat that it took financial resources beyond what most teams could afford or dedicate. They weren’t able to capitalize on their four other high picks, but very few players went in the next couple rounds who even had 10 WAR careers. Stynes was one of the better third rounders.

The real gems came later on. Nomar Garciaparra was another brilliant find by the Red Sox early did not sign in the 5th round out of the California high school ranks. LaTroy Hawkins went in the 7th round, but it was the 8th that had a bonanza of pitching: Jason Schmidt, Brad Radke, Derek Lowe, Steve Trachsel. Mike Sweeney went in the 10th round.

Overall assessment/grade: B+/A-. The Jays got one of the 10 best players to come out of the draft, and another who was a decent regular for a long-time even though he never quite lived up to the star potential. That’s a successful draft, but balanced against that is the higher bar from having more picks and shots on goal, as well as the financial advantage to take risks on high upside.

Last Blue Jays connection to the 1991 draft: Gonzalez was the last player in the organization a decade later, having re-signed as a free agent after 2000 on a four-year deal. A year later, he was one of the first big salaries dumped by J.P. Riccardi. the last link however comes via Green, who was traded after 1999 to his hometown Dodgers with one year of control for Paul Mondesi and Pedro Borbon.

That ultimately backfired as Mondesi was an early peaker, and Ash would have been much better off seeking out a package of prospects. Mondesi’s big salary was in turned dumped on the desperate Yankees mid-2002, bringing back Scott Wiggins who left as a minor league free agent after 2003 (making for a 12.5 year chain). Ben Weber was a minor league signing a few years later, and Jeff Ware is of course a minor league coach to this day.