This month, the Toronto Blue Jays selected 41 players in the amateur draft. Statistically, only about five or six of these players will ever get a chance to play in the major leagues. About 17 percent of drafted players make it for at least a cup of coffee. T.J. Zeuch, the Blue Jays first round pick, has a much higher chance, as about 73 percent of first rounders make it. For this month’s issue of “The Nine”, let’s take a look at the best players the Jays have ever managed to draft in the first round. Over the years, as with any team, there have been some duds (Tom Goffeina, Garry Harris, Eddie Zosky, Kevin Ahrens, etc.) as well as some great players. Here are the 9 best major league baseball players that Toronto Blue Jays have ever drafted in the first round.
9. Ricky Romero – 6th Overall Pick in 2005
Yep. Romero makes this list. One of the most maligned first round draft picks in recent Blue Jays memory, many fans remember him being drafted ahead of Troy Tulowitzki. They also remember him taking longer to develop than originally thought, and they remember his fall from grace. They remember Tulo becoming a star, and Russ Adams, the player the Jays believed in enough to draft a pitcher instead, not becoming one. In between all of this though, was a player who had three solid seasons as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays rotation. That included an all-star appearance in 2011, a year in which he also finished in the top ten in Cy Young votes.
Romero was drafted out of college in 2005. The first, and still the best, pitcher drafted in the early rounds of that draft: he spent a couple seasons in the minors hurt, and struggled with control during his healthy seasons. He seemed to have figured it out by 2009, and spent the three seasons atop the Jays rotation, before inexplicably losing control over the strike-zone again by age 27. Still, anytime a draft pick can make the majors, have a successful run, and make an all-star team, he’s achieved an obvious element of success.
Fun 2005 Draft Fact: This draft is well-regarded (deservedly so) as one of the best drafts of all time. Eight of the first twelve picks have made all-star teams, including Romero, first overall pick Justin Upton, Alex Gordon (2), Ryan Zimmerman (4), Ryan Braun (5) , Troy Tulowitzki (7) Andrew McCutchen (11) and Jay Bruce (12). That’s an incredible streak of success.
8. Shannon Stewart – 19th Overall Pick in 1992
A mid-first round draft pick out of high school in 1992, Stewart played in 14 seasons, 10 of which he was a member of a the Toronto Blue Jays. The only player on this list to not make an all-star team, Stewart nevertheless carved out a really nice career for himself, with eight seasons in a row in which the lowest OPS he had was .782. He even managed to finish 4th in AL MVP voting in 2003; a season in which he spent half his season in Toronto and half in Minnesota.
Stewart played a decent left field despite having a horrible arm. He was a high average, good on-base guy who possessed some pop and speed (51 SB in 1998). Stewart solidified the top of the batting order in Toronto, setting the table for the late-90s/early 2000s power line-ups the Jays possessed. Stewart is, by all accounts, a successful draft pick of the Toronto Blue Jays.
Fun 1992 Draft Fact: This was the first draft in which smaller market teams were intentionally and obviously forgoing certain high ranked prospects in favor of prospects who weren’t going to demand as much as much money in signing bonuses. In what is now the norm, Scott Boras clients Michael Tucker and Charles Johnson fell in the draft. Intead of paying a lot of money for one of the two two top prospects, Houston instead drafted Phil Nevin, who wasn’t nearly as highly touted at the time. One of the top two, Jeffrey Hammonds, fell to fourth. The other fell to sixth. His name was Derek Jeter.
7. Ed Sprague Jr. – 25th Overall Pick in 1988
The son of a former major league pitcher, Sprague was drafted as a third baseman out of college by the Jays, despite the fact that they already had Rance Mulliniks and Kelly Gruber in the fold. After hitting well throughout his minor league career, he came up for a cup of coffee in 1991, and then again in 1992. Despite being drafted as a third baseman and playing almost exclusively third base throughout his minor league career, Sprague was added to the 1992 postseason roster as the back-up catcher after starting only eight games for the team at that position during the season. Gruber was traded after the season and Sprague was moved back to his normal position for the 1993 season.
Sprague spent over a decade in the major leagues, most of them with the Jays, as a serviceable third baseman. He did manage to hit 36 home runs for them in 1996 and make an all-star team for Pittsburgh in 1999. His most famous Jays moment came in 1992, where his pinch hit home-run in the ninth inning of game two of the world series off Jeff Reardon served as the game-winning home-run. He also has the distinction of being the only Blue Jays’ first round pick to ever play in a World Series as a member of the team.
Fun 1988 Draft Fact: The early rounds of the 1998 draft managed to produce a few all-stars, including guys like Steve Avery, Tino Martinez and Robin Ventura, but this draft was notable in that all the future superstars came later in the draft. Luis Gonzalez was drafted in the 4th round, Jim Edmonds in the 7th, and Kenny Loften in the 17th. Most amazingly, the best player from this draft was picked in the 62nd round of that draft, and only as a favor to his father, who was close friends with then-Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda. Mike Piazza was drafted as the Dodgers final pick this year, moved to catcher, and went on to become the greatest offensive catcher of all time before making the hall of fame.
6. Alex Rios – 19th Overall Pick in 1999
Alex Rios was a very, very good player for both the Blue Jays and White Sox for a very long time. This author ranked him as the most underappreciated Blue Jay of all time in an earlier edition of the “nine” after he left the Blue Jays under bad terms. Rios, after being drafted out of high school in the first round in 1999, would go on to dominate the minor leagues and was named the 6th best prospect in all of baseball before making his debut in 2004. He would go on to play very well for 6 and a half seasons as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays, making 2 all-star teams in the process. Known by many Jays fans for not living up to the large contract he signed in 2007, he was claimed on waivers (in a salary dump) by the White Sox in 2009 and would go on to several more successful seasons, even garnering some MVP votes in 2012. In the end, Alex Rios ended up being an excellent first round draft pick for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Fun 1999 Draft Fact: The top pick in this draft was high school prospect Josh Hamilton, one of the rare “can’t miss” prospects, he was highly regarded as one of the best draft prospects the league has ever seen. You likely know his story by now, he hit a ton in his early minor league years, but struggled with substance abuse and ended up being out of baseball for 3 years, then getting his life back on track and winning an MVP award in 2010, before his career has been mostly derailed by injury and relapse since. The player who ended up having the best career, by far, of this draft was drafted 402nd because no one could confirm his age or figure out what position he should play. That player, Albert Pujols, has gone on to be one of the best first baseman to ever play the game.
5. Lloyd Moseby – 2nd Overall Pick in 1978
The Blue Jays have never chosen 1st overall in any draft, so Moseby stands with Garry Harris (1980) and Augie Schmidt (1982) as the highest draft picks the Blue Jays have made. He’s obviously the best of the three names mentioned since neither of the other guys ever made it the majors. Moseby, however, is a draft success story, as he ended up in the middle of a three-headed outfield monster with George Bell and Jesse Barfield for most of the 1980s making the Jays became perennial contenders. Probably the least heralded of those three, Moseby was very probably the best center fielder in the American league for a three year period from 1983-1985 (WAR would certainly agree that he was), although he made his only all-star appearance in 1986 (this is particularly odd, since it the was year that both Ricky Henderson and Robin Young became center fielders). Still, Moseby managed to play at least 100 games every single season for the Toronto Blue Jays in every year of the 1980s before moving to the Tigers in 1990. A 12 year career, an all-star appearance, MVP votes, good defense, and a perennial 15 HR/30 SB guy in an era where that mattered a lot earns him a spot on this list.
Fun 1978 Draft Fact: An incredible 4 players were called up the majors immediately after the draft without playing even a game in the minors. It wasn’t super common then, and it has only happened 8 times in the over 35 years since. These players included first rounders Bob Horner, Tim Conroy and Mike Morgan. Incredibly, it also included the Toronto Blue Jays 7th round draft pick Brian Milner, the only catcher ever to do this. Even more incredible is that Milner made two starts for the Blue Jays as an 18 year old, was sent back down to the minors, and never again made it to the majors.
4. Shawn Green – 16th Overall Pick in 1991
Shawn Green is the first player to make an entrance on this list who had as much or more success outside of the Blue Jays organization as he did as a member of the Blue Jays. Drafted in 1991 out of Stanford University, he made his debut in 1993 (and even ended up with a World Series ring) but didn’t become a regular until 1995. Green played very well his first three seasons, mostly as part of a platoon. With a new manager in 1998, Green was finally allowed to play every day, and broke out, winning a silver slugger award, gold glove award, and making an all-star appearance. Traded to the LA Dodgers after that season because the Jays weren’t going to be able to afford to sign both him and Carlos Delgado, Green continued to perform, hitting 49 home-runs in 2000 and spending many more years as a reliable bat. One of the most high profile first round draft picks the Blue Jays have ever made, Shawn Green turned out to be quite the player.
Fun 1991 Draft Fact: Shawn’s 1991 draft signing bonus was actually the second highest of the draft, despite being picked mid-way through the first round, at $750,000. It paled in comparison, however, to the $1.55 million that first overall draft pick Brien Taylor received from the Yankees, smashing records and causing teams to draft with signing bonuses more at the forefront of their in minds in subsequent drafts. Taylor never even managed to make the majors, missing two minor league seasons due to injuries sustained in a bar fight, and never regaining his form. The 1991 draft as a whole was a pretty poor one in the end, with only Green, Manny Ramirez, and Nomar Garciaparra having multiple all star appearances.
3. Vernon Wells – 5th Overall Pick in 1997
The first high school player drafted in 1997, Wells would go on to a storied career as a member of the Blue Jays, and is very likely the best center fielder ever to play for the team. He started in the middle of the Toronto outfield for nine seasons, made three all star teams, won three gold gloves, and a silver slugger award. Over the 10 years he was a major league regular, including one as a member of the Angels, no American League center fielder hit more home runs. After spending three consecutive Septembers with the team, Wells became a regular for good in 2002, the same year Eric Hinske won the rookie of the year award (Wells had too many prior plate appearances to be in contention). Signed to what is still the largest contract ever by a member of the Toronto Blue Jays in 2006, Wells had two good years and two mediocre ones before having his backloaded contract unloaded in a trade with the Angels. He would play three fairly unsuccessful years with the Angels and Yankees before retiring in 2013. When all was said and done, Wells finished his Jays career second all-time in Blue Jay plate appearances, home-runs (Bautista has passed him), RBIs, hits, and doubles. That’s a pretty good career by every standard.
Fun 1997 Draft Fact: Not known for being a particularly strong first round, Vernon Wells is probably the second best player from the first round of that draft after Lance Berkman. The first overall pick was Matt Anderson, which was the first and only time that a projected relief pitcher was taken first overall in the major league draft. Anderson would go on to have a non-descript 7 year major league career.
2. Chris Carpenter – 15th Overall Pick in 1993
An undoubtedly great pitcher, and high up on the list of players the Blue Jays likely regretted letting leave, Carpenter was drafted in the first round by the Blue Jays but never reached his potential with the team. Plagued by injuries and a general lack of effectiveness, he turned down an incentive laden, minor league deal while he was injured in 2002 and moved on to St. Louis. He finished his Blue Jays career with a WHIP of 1.51 and and ERA of 4.83 in 870 innings, so it’s not unreasonable to understand the Jays unwillingness to give him a major league deal following shoulder surgery. Why he’s on this list, however, is for the way his career took off as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals. After missing the entirety of the 2003 season, Carpenter figured it out in 2004, and by 2005 was the dominant force we all remember, winning the National League Cy Young Award. He would finish in the top three in Cy voting another two times in his career, and go on to win two World Series championship with St. Louis. He was never able to remain fully healthy, however, pitching in fewer than five games in 2003, 2007, 2008, 2012 and 2013, before finally calling it a career. When he was healthy though, he was one of the very best pitchers in all of baseball.
Fun 1993 Draft Fact: The 1993 draft is well known as the Alex Rodriguez draft. Easily the highest touted player heading into the draft, he was drafted first overall and would go on to have a career we remember. Also of note in this draft is that future Heisman winner Charlie Ward was drafted in the 59th round. Ward was drafted in both the 1993 and 1994 major league drafts as a pitcher despite never playing baseball at the college level. He was also drafted in 1994 by the NBA’s New York Knicks, and would go on to a decent basketball career. Surprisingly, he was never drafted by an NFL team.
1. Roy Halladay – 17th Overall Pick in 1995
A fairly no-brainer number one on this, Mr. Halladay will undoubtedly be placed on the level of excellence, and may one day go into the Hall of Fame. His resume speaks for itself; he won a Cy Young Award in both leagues, pitched a perfect game, a postseason no-hitter, was an eight time all-star, and finished in the top five in Cy Young voting seven times. It’s not unreasonable to argue that he was the best starting pitcher of his time, league-wide (his fWAR from 2001-2011 is 62.7, over 10 wins more than any other pitcher). Halladay was drafted out of high school, ranked highly, and made the big leagues with lots of hype, coming within one out of a no-hitter in his second major league start. After a mediocre first full season, Halladay went off the rails in 2000, posting a 10.64 ERA that still stands as the major league high record for a pitcher with 50 innings. Sent all the way back to single-A, he rebuild his mechanics (with the help of Mel Queen), and returned as a bonafide starter in 2001. He would stay that way for over a decade. The Jays certainly don’t regret this pick; with apologies to Todd Helton and Carlos Beltran, Roy Halladay is actually the very best player taken in that draft. One of the top two Blue Jays pitchers ever, Halladay tops this list of best Blue Jay first round draft choices of all-time.
Fun 1995 Draft (Jays!) Fact: Roy Halladay is not the highest drafted player, or even the first to play for the Blue Jays, from this draft. That honor belongs to Jose Cruz Jr, who was drafted third overall by the Mariners. He was eventually traded to Toronto in 1997 (for Paul Spoljaric and Mike Timlin), where he played for the big league club a year earlier than Halladay. Cruz would have a pretty decent career as well, but since he wasn’t drafted by the Blue Jays, he is ineligible for this list.
There you have it: The nine greatest first round draft choices in Blue Jays history. I hope you enjoyed that trip down memory lane, and I certainly hope that in a few years names like Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman, or Jon Harris and TJ Zuech, can be added to this list.
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