Thus, I'm splitting it up into two parts, and keeping you dear readers in suspense as you wait for the next installment..
Having been a Jays fan since their inception, I've certainly lived through a lot of ups and downs.
I've lived through the ugly years of the late 70s, the years of promise of the mid-80s (and the years of frustration that followed), as well as the glory years of the early 90s, and the very lean times of the past 20 years.
One thing that has kept me going when the Jays suffer through yet another season when they've fallen out of contention by August is the hope for the future that their minor league prospects offer. From Lloyd Moseby to Tony Fernandez to Derek Bell to Vernon Wells to Dustin McGowan and on to Aaron Sanchez, the glimmer of optimism that the future might bring is reason to look forward to the following spring.
I lean pretty heavily on the good folks at Baseball America for a lot of my prospecting research, going to back to the mid 80s, when one Sil Campusano was one of their cover boys. They've been compiling their Top Prospects lists for each major league organization going back to 1983, so I thought I would compile my own list of all time Jays' prospects using their rankings. The system I used is simple: 10 points for the top prospect each year, going down to 1 point for the 10th. Then I added up the points for every year a player made the top 10 list (tie breaker: number of #1 finishes), and came up with the following (in reverse order):
#10 Derek Bell OF
Bell was a 2nd round pick in the 1987 draft out of high school in Tampa. By the middle of his second pro season, he had progressed as far as AA. He was named the organization's top prospect in 1989, 2nd ranked in 1990, and the top ranked again in 1991, when he had a monster year at AAA, winning the International League batting title, and taking home both IL MVP and BA player of the year honours.
Bell had trouble cracking a solid major league outfield with the parent club, and there were whispers of an attitude problem, so Bell was shipped with a minor leaguer to San Diego for veteran outfielder Darrin Jackson, which was probably ample evidence of what the Blue Jays thought of Bell.
He seemed to find himself with Padres, and had a pair of decent seasons. Early in his second season with San Diego, he and a teammate were arrested in New York City before a game with the Mets with soliciting an undercover policewoman. The charges were dropped after the season, but the Padres sent Bell to the Astros as part of a 12-player trade.
It was in Houston that Bell experienced his greatest success, driving in 108 runs in 1995, and becoming part of the famed "Killer Bees" (Bell, Bagwell, Biggio, Berkman), and was an integral part of 3 consecutive division winners.
Bell soon wore out his welcome in Houston, however. In 1999, Manager Larry Dierker was returning to the club after a month-long absence from emergency brain surgery following a seizure. Bell was upset that Dierker, upon his return, had dropped the slumping Bell from 2nd to 6th in the batting order.
Bell was critical of his manager after the game - on the day he had returned from a near-death experience. Bell was traded to the Mets in the off-season and helped lead them to a division title, but the Mets let him walk after one season as a free agent.
The only team to take a chance on Bell after that was the Pirates, who signed him to a two-year, $9 million deal for no apparent reason in 2001. Bell hit all of .176 that year, and was told the following spring that he was going to have to battle to keep his starting job. Bell told reporters:
"Nobody told me I was in competition. If there is competition, somebody better let me know. If there is competition, they better eliminate me out of the race and go ahead and do what they're going to do with me. I ain't never hit in spring training and I never will. If it ain't settled with me out there, then they can trade me. I ain't going out there to hurt myself in spring training battling for a job. If it is [a competition], then I'm going into 'Operation Shutdown.' Tell them exactly what I said. I haven't competed for a job since 1991."
Bell left the team for his yacht on March 29th, and was released two days later. Pittsburgh sports columnist Mark Madden had the final and best observation of the Derek Bell era, with a column titled, "Derek Bell becomes ultimate pirate: Lives on a boat and steals money."
His troubles did not end there, although his baseball career did. He was arrested in Florida on cocaine possession charges in 2006, and again in 2008. Several years later, having squandered most of the $26 million he made during his playing career, Bell put the World Series ring he earned with the 1992 Jays on ebay, but didn't get his asking price of $17 000.For his career, Bell hit .276, with 134 HR and 668 RBI.
#9 Travis Snider - OF
The Jays' first round choice (14th overall) in the 2006 out of high school in Washington, Snider rose through the minors rapidly. And then things kind of stalled....
I could go on about how Snider's Jays' career was a study in injury and inconsistency, but it comes down to this: they called him up waaaaaay too early. In 2007, Snider was one of the youngest players in the Low A Midwest League. A year later, he was a major leaguer. At 20.
I can't decide if this was a huge miscalculation on the part of J.P Ricciardi and his braintrust, or if the Jays' former GM, stung by criticism that he could only scout, sign and develop low ceiling but signable college pitchers in the first round, brought Snider up at such a young age to show everyone, "oh, yes I can." Either way, Snider came to the majors with mechanics and habits that allowed him to succeed in the minors, but major league pitchers would quickly learn and exploit.
Manager Cito Gaston and Bench Coach both saw the flaws in Snider's swing, and tried to change him, but he was either resistant to such suggestions, or the communications were mighty bad. Just the same, I ask why he was brought up with these issues ? Didn't someone along the way notice ? The major leagues were no place for a makeover.
The Jays tried to work with Snider, but with minimal success. Perhaps he was just too immature at that point. Maybe with the unlucky string of injuries he suffered forced him to put too much pressure on himself.
For the next four seasons after his debut, Snider spent significant time in the minors. Whispers abounded that he was a AAAA player - too good for the minors, but not good enough to stick in the bigs.
What the Jays should have done was to let Snider progress one level at a time. Maybe he could have had a mid-season promotion, but there likely was no convincing him that he needed to make changes when he was called up in the fall of 2008. He had zipped through 3 levels on his way to the bigs that year. And maybe Cito and Geno weren't the guys to convince a young player - bringing back Cito was a desperation move, and even though there was a brief improvement in the club's forturnes (especially for Aaron Hill and Adam Lind), I think it set the franchise back several years. It certainly cost them their best prospect in years.
Snider was the Jays' top BA prospect in 2008 and 2009, and ranked 2nd in 2007.
The Jays traded Snider to Pittsburgh at the July trade deadline last year. He's rebounded a bit in a lesser role with the Pirates this year (.305, but with no pop), but he's a shell of the player he once was. At 25 years of age.
#8 Fred McGriff 1b
Originally drafted out of high school in the 9th round by the Yankees in 1981, McGriff was part of a trade that saw reliever Dale Murray go to the Yankees in 1983. McGriff made the Jays for good in 1987, and hit 105 home runs for them over the next four years before being dealt to San Diego along with Tony Fernandez for Robbie Alomar and Joe Carter.
McGriff also played for the Braves (who he won a World Series with in 1995), the Rays, and the Cubs over the course of his 19 year career. He finished just 7 home runs shy of 500, and hit at least 30 home runs in 7 consecutive seasons. In 1992, he became the first player since the deadball era to lead both leagues in homeruns.
It would have been great to see McGriff be part of the Jays World Series years, but that would also have meant no Joe Carter or Robbie Alomar. He was a good player who is a borderline hall of famer. His chances may have dimmed somewhat by the steroid era, although he was never linked with PED's. Baseball-reference.com has listed Willie Stargell and Willie McCovey (both in the hall) as having career statistics similar to McGriff's.
McGriff was the Jays' 5th ranked prospect in 1983, 2nd in 1984, 1st in 85, and 5th in 86.
#7 Carlos Delgado 1b
You know you are getting old when a player who reaches the majors as your first kid is born calls it a career as the kid is getting ready to go off to university.
The Jays signed Delgado as an undrafted free agent when he was 16, in 1988. Originally a catcher, Delgado had a couple of monster years in the minors before the Jays moved him to first (after a brief trial as an outfielder) in 1994 It took a couple of years for Delgado to establish himself as a major league regular, but he broke through in '96, with a .270/.353./.490 line, to go along with 25 home runs and 92 RBI. Over the next 7 seasons, Delgado averaged 39 homers and 123 RBI.
Delgado had the misfortune to play for a team that was seldom in contention late in the season. In 2005, the Jays could no longer afford him, and Delgado signed as a free agent with the Mets. Delgado finished his career with a .280 average, 473 home runs, and 1512 RBI.
He was the Jays top prospect in 1993, ranked 2nd in 94, 5th in 92, and 6th in 91.
Delgado is the Jays' career leader in many offensive categories, including homers (336) and RBI (1,058).
For over a decade, he was as dangerous a hitter as there was in baseball.
#6 Silvestre Campusano
Few prospects have been hyped as much as Sil Campusano. And even fewer have been a bigger bust.
Signed out of the Dominican in 1984, he was the Jays' top ranked prospect in 1986, 87, and 88. Campusano made the team out of spring training in 1988, and was set to start in left field. The only problem was that the previous left fielder was George Bell, the reigning AL MVP, just off a 47 HR 134 RBI season. Manager Jimy Williams didn't like Bell's defence, and pencilled in the rookie in his place. Bell hit 3 home runs against the Royals on Opening Day, but spent much of the season feuding with Williams. Campusano didn't help his own cause, hitting .218/.282/.359 in 73 games, before earning a demotion back to Triple A.
Campusano spent 1989 in AAA, his premium prospect status long gone. The Phillies picked him up in the Rule V draft in the offseason. He spent parts of two seasons with them, being most notable for breaking up Doug Drabek's no-hit bid with two outs in the 9th during Drabek's Cy Young season of 1990. The Phils released him after the 1991 season. Campusano experienced some success in China and Mexico before his career ended.
So - the obvious question: how could someone so highly ranked flame out so dramatically ?
That's tough to say. Was he over-rated ? Possibly, but then a lot of people beyond the staff of Baseball America were guilty of that, if that was the case. Certainly, his minor league numbers outside of one season weren't all that spectacular, but he had legions of admirers at every level. Was he rushed too quickly to the majors ? Maybe. His progress up the minor league ladder was accelerated after that one good year in 1985, and maybe he wasn't ready for it. He was all of 21 when the Blue Jays, a team that had seen a 3 1/2 game lead with less than a week to play slip away in a frustrating and heartbreaking weekend against the Tigers, handed him the starting left field job, relegating the previous season's MVP to DH duties. Perhaps that was just too much pressure to put on a youngster. At any rate, the Blue Jays decided pretty quickly that he couldn't play, banishing him to the minors, then leaving him off the 40 man roster just over a year after he was ranked as their top prospect.
Campusano hit .202 for his career. I'm still puzzled as to how his stock fell so rapidly.