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Yesterday in history: Jays “settle” for Tom Henke

It worked out for the best that the California Angels had priority in the January 1985 free agent compensation draft

Tom Henke

39 years ago, Major League Baseball held the last of four largely ill-fated free-agent compensation drafts from 1982 to 1985. Famously, the Toronto Blue Jays plucked Tom Henke from the Texas Rangers, obtaining an instrumental piece of their future contending teams in the form of the shutdown closer at the end of the bullpen that had long eluded them.

What isn’t usually mentioned is the huge stroke of good fortune involved in them landing Henke because he was not their first pick. That instead was reliever Donnie Moore of the Atlanta Braves, and it was only because the Angels had priority over the Jays and thus got Moore that the Jays had to settle for Henke. In fact, Henke was so unheralded or undesired that the Jays immediately turned around and sent him outright off the 40-man roster that same day, not to require tying up a spot on the 40-man.

The broader historical context around the Henke is interesting, so what follows is an overview of the free agent compensation draft, the 1985 compensation draft specifically, what the Jays were doing that winter, and the aftermath for the involved parties.

When free agency was negotiated in the 1976 collective agreement, it was a very different system than we’re familiar with today. Until it was abolished in the 1985 collective agreement, there was a “free agent re-entry draft” every November, in which teams drafted the rights to negotiate with free agents (who could only sign with teams drafting them in most cases).

In addition to that restriction, the owners insisted on compensation for losing a free agent, wanting a system like the one in the NFL, where teams selected a player off the other team's roster. That system greatly discouraged pursuing other teams’ free agents and diminished player movement, and accordingly, it was a non-starter for the MLBPA. The compromise was draft pick compensation, whereby a signing team would lose its first-round pick to the former team (second-round pick if in the top half).

That did little to restrain the free agent market, and with salaries exploding, the biggest priority for owners in the next agreement was securing stronger compensation. The MLBPA was equally adamant about not having direct compensation in the form of major league players, and the stalemate resulted in the two-month strike of June/July 1981.

The compromise that ended the strike was a convoluted system for compensation in which players would be ranked statistically (by the Elias Sports Bureau), with the top 20% at a position designated Type A, and the next 10% Type B. Compensation was as follows:

  • Type A free agent: the signing team’s top draft pick plus a pick from a compensation pool
  • Type B free agent: the signing team’s top draft pick, plus a special supplemental pick at the end of the first round (what became known as sandwich picks)
  • Unranked free agent: the signing team’s top draft pick only

In all cases, the former team only received the other team’s draft pick if the player was drafted by at least other four teams in the re-entry draft, otherwise it was just the other element of compensation (of none in the case of an unranked player).

The compensation pool was drawn from all teams after they had protected 26 players from their organizations or 24 if they had signed a Type A free agent. Up to five teams could opt out of signing any Type A free agents for three years and having to contribute to the pool (seven teams applied, the Jays not among them; the Red Sox, Angels, Dodgers, Twins and Mariners were chosen by lot). A team losing a player got $150,000 from a central fund and was exempt from contributing to future pools.

One final point about the compensation pool relates to Henke. It is frequently said that the Jays took him from Texas with their pick because Texas had signed Cliff Johnson from them. But this was purely co-incidental; the MLBPA only begrudgingly agreed to the compensation pool in the first place because it linked signing a player to losing. In fact, it was the only time that a team signed a free agent and lost a player through the pool for that signing.

The White Sox were the only team to lose a 1981 Type A free agent (Ed Farmer) and chose catcher Joel Skinner from Pittsburgh in return. The next year, there were two, with the White Sox losing Steve Kemp and the Mariners losing Brian Bannister. The White Sox again failed to get any impact, selecting Steve Mura from St. Louis, but Seattle was shrewder and nabbed long-time future big leaguer Danny Tartabull from Cincinnati’s system.

But it was in January 1984 that all hell broke loose with the system. After the Jays signed Type A free agent Dennis Lamp, the White Sox were again entitled to choose from the pool. The Mets had gambled and left 39-year-old Tom Seaver unprotected, given his large salary, but that did not deter the White Sox and the selection of an all-time great sent shockwaves through baseball and especially New York.

A couple of weeks later, Tom Underwood signed with Baltimore and Oakland was entitled to a pick. They selected pitcher Tim Belcher from the Yankees, an uber-prospect who had just been the first overall pick in the January draft (and had not signed with Minnesota as the first overall pick of the June 1983 draft). They exploited a loophole in that he had just signed the week before the Yankees had to submit their protected list (for the White Sox pick). So, the Yankees lost a player they literally could not protect.

These two picks turned sentiment against the compensation pool—this was the result teams had endured a 50-day strike to achieve. Not surprisingly, after 1985, the compensation pool was done away, replaced by the system of compensation that endured various tweaks until 2012, when it, in turn, was replaced by the qualifying offer system.

In any event, by 1985, teams were paying a lot closer attention to their lists. Nonetheless, Atlanta opted not to protect reliever Donnie Smith, who had posted a 2.94 ERA in 1984, as he was demanding a huge raise in arbitration (and they had shelled out huge bucks for Bruce Sutter).

That was no obstacle for the Jays, desperate to upgrade the bullpen to challenge Detroit in the AL East and their backend of Willie Hernandez, Aurelio Lopez and Doug Bair. In December, they had moved Dave Collins and Alfredo Griffin for Bill Caudill to be their closer, despite him being in line for over a million dollars in arbitration.

But they were not the only team drafting. In the 1984 offseason, five free agents rated Type A. Rick Thornton (Cubs) and Andre Thornton (Cleveland) re-signed. Bruce Sutter (Cardinals) and Fred Lynn (Angels) were bona fide stars, so it was no surprise they ranked as Type A. Cliff Johnson was a 37-year-old platoon DH with just 899 PA the previous two years, but that platooning had made him very productive (137 wRC+) and he qualified as Type A.

Being a DH limited Johnson’s market, and in fact, only three other teams drafted his negotiating rights (Orioles, Rangers, White Sox), and the Jays retained them. That meant the Jays were not eligible to receive a first-round pick from the signing team, just the pick from the pool. The Jays wanted Johnson back but balked at going beyond one year guaranteed. When Texas ponied up two years and more money ($1.5 million guaranteed vs. $600,000) as well as the opportunity to play every day, he was gone.

The precise procedure of the compensation draft actually wasn’t a draft in terms of being sequential picks. The 17 teams contributing to the pool submitted their protection lists by January 16th, the three selecting weeks had a week to review them, and then all three teams simultaneously submitted the names they wanted.

If multiple teams took the same player, priority was determined by how teams had drafted the free agent they had lost. Thus, St. Louis (six teams drafted by Sutter) had priority over California (Lynn by five) over Toronto (Johnson by three). In terms of Moore, the Cardinals were not an issue, choosing minor league shortstop Angel Salazar from the Expos (according to their GM, the 27th player they would have protected).

But California also selected Moore and thus was awarded him, leaving the Jays to pivot to Henke. This was viewed as a surprising pick, even skeptically in the media, given the number of veterans available and Henke’s modest 4.20 ERA in 60 career innings. But that didn’t matter to Gillick, telling Allan Ryan of the Toronto Star, “You’re looking at the stats, that’s all you’re looking at,” and the Globe and Mail, “We scout tools. We don’t scout statistics...we were shocked he was available.”

Those tools? “He’s got an outstanding arm, a good live fastball,” Gillick told Ryan, and he was certainly proved right.

Two days after getting Henke, the Jays went out. They added another veteran arm to the bullpen to complement Caudill, acquiring Gary Lavelle from San Francisco and extending his contract. Perhaps had they got Moore, they wouldn’t have done that. Caudill and Lavelle produced decent results in 1985 but were expensive flops thereafter. Meanwhile, Henke emerged midway through 1985 and seized the closer’s role. Of the three relief acquisitions, it was the least heralded and costly and the biggest factor in 1985 and the long run.

For his part, Moore wasn’t exactly a pumpkin either. He posted a 1.92 ERA in 103 innings in 1985 and was very good in 1986 before giving up a crucial home run to Dave Henderson in the ALCS. He battled injuries thereafter and declined and committed suicide in July 1989 after shooting his wife three times following an argument.

As for Cliff Johnson, he would find his way back to Toronto in short order. After the likes of Willie Aikens, Len Matsuzek, and Jeff Burroughs failed to plug the DH hole in August, despite Johnson’s production tailing off in Texas from 1983-84, the Jays decided his new contract was not too bloated after all and re-acquired him to bolster the “Drive for ‘85” stretch run. Alas, he hit just .274/.349/.315 and was decent in 1986 in his last season at age 38.