#5 Vernon Wells OF
Drafted in the first round (5th overall) of the 1997 June draft out of high school in Texas (where he was compared to a young Ron Gant), Wells shot through the system in 1999, starting the year in High A ball, and mashing his way through three levels (he was named top prospect in the FSL, SL & IL that year) en route to a major league call-up at the end of August. No other Jays prospect put up the kind of minor league numbers Wells did that season. Wells is the best outfield prospect the club has signed and developed since Lloyd Moseby, and it could be argued that he is the best in club history in that regard.
Wells couldn't beat out incumbent CF Jose Cruz, Jr for the centrefield job in 2000, so he returned to AAA for parts of two more seasons before sticking with the big league club for good in 2002. Over the next 5 seasons, he averaged .302 28 HR & 97 RBI, usually hitting 3rd in the lineup. After winning his third straight Gold Glove award in 2006, Wells signed a back-loaded 7-year, $126 million contract.
And things kind of came apart after that.....
Three years of diminished production and injuries led Wells and his huge contract to become a lightning rod for frustrated fans. Mercifully, Alex Anthopolous convinced the Angels to take on the remaining years of his deal in 2011, although the years of steep decline continued. The injury-ravaged Yankees dealt for Wells this spring, and he's had a bit of a resurgence, in part thanks to Jays fans, who lustily booed him on his return in pinstripes. Much to my frustration. It wasn't Wells' fault that he signed the huge contract - that was where the market was at at the time. And he wouldn't be the first former Toronto player who has responded in such a manner to this treatment. Ricciardi did rip Wells and a few other teammates for indifferent play in a series against the Royals, but I never got the sense that he was giving less than 100%. He was at the absolute peak of his career when he signed the deal, and history and Bill James tell us that production tends to start to decline after a player reaches age 27 or 28. Wells' numbers were following central tendency theory pretty closely.
Wells was the Jays top-ranked prospect by BA in 2000 and 2001, and was one of only 3 Jays to rank as high as 4th on the BA top 100 prospects list in 2001. He ranks behind Delgado in many career stats in team annals.
#4 Roy Halladay P
The best first-round draft choice the Jays have ever developed. Plain and simple.
Halladay was chosen 17th overall in the 1995 draft. He has recorded 65 WAR since he broke into the majors in 1998. Only Todd Helton (chosen 8th that year) has a WAR (61.6) that even comes close from that draft.
Halladay developed relatively slowly, and split time between starting and the bullpen for his first two seasons, even taking a no-hitter into the 9th in a game in 1998. Then came 1999. Halladay compiled a 4-7 record, with an astronomical 10.64 ERA, the highest in major league history for a pitcher with at least 50 IP.
The story is well documented of how Halladay went all the way back down to High A ball to rebuild his delivery with one-time mentor Bill Monboquette. The Jays lowered his arm slot, and throwing from a three-quarters position instead of over the top, Halladay was able to gain all kinds of movement on both his fastball and slider. Having made the transition from thrower to pitcher, he was back in the majors to stay a month and a half later.
It's interesting that the Jays recently decided to take the same course of action with lefthander Ricky Romero, keeping him in Florida after the season began and rebuilding his delivery. While the results of Romero's makeover won't truly be known for a while, its surprising that more teams don't take the same course of action with struggling starters. Sometimes it's an options situation, but the Florida State League, with its bigger parks and the humid Florida air keeping balls in play, is not a bad place to send someone who needs to get his arm (and sometimes head) together. I'm sure it's a huge ego blow to be sent back to A ball, but even in this day of instant mass communications, it's still a bit out of the spotlight. It sure beats, say, Las Vegas. Or anywhere in the PCL, for that matter.
Halladay was the Jays' top-ranked prospect in 97, 98 and 99, and was the 5th ranked in 1996.
I can't decide if he or Dave Stieb would rank as the best hurler to don a Blue Jays uniform. Both had nasty, lights-out stuff in their primes. It's kind of sad to see the struggles Halladay is going through right now. Maybe the toll of so many innings and his legendary workouts are adding up. Even though we wears a different uniform now, it's impossible not to be pulling for him to get through this.
#3 Alex Gonzalez ss
We're not talking, of course, about the most recent shortstop of the same name who played half a season for the Jays before being dealt to the Braves for Yuniel Escobar.
The other Alex Gonzalez came to the club with much fanfare. He slid to the 14th round in the 1991 draft, because many teams were convinced that he would attend U of Miami, where his dad was a professor. Instead, he took the Jays' offer, and began a quick ascent up the minor league ladder. Along with Shawn Green and Carlos Delgado, he was one of the jewels of the minor league system, quietly developing together as the parent club was in its glory years.
Gonzalez was the club's top ranked prospect in 93 and 94, and was 2nd ranked in 92 and 95. In 1994, Gonzalez joined Delgado and Halladay as the highest-ever ranking Jays prospect (#4) in Baseball America's annual Top 100 list.. He made his debut in 1995, and while he hit .243/322./398, he helped solidify Toronto's up-the-middle defence. The problem is, of course, is that line almost mirrored his career averages. Quite simply, Gonzalez never hit enough, despite the rave reviews he earned in the minors (where his offensive numbers were better, but not overwhelming), He was capable of going on a tear for a week or so, but then would return to his less-productive ways (Gonzalez struck out over 100 5 times in his 7 full seasons with the club). The Jays thought they had a better prospect in Felipe Lopez, so they dealt Gonzalez to the Cubs after the 2001 season. Gonzalez played in the memorable Steve Bartman game in the 2003 NLCS against the Marlins, booting a potential double play grounder moments after the famous incident.
Why do players like Gonzalez, who was so highly ranked, not quite measure up to expectations ? Good question. His career was decent, but probably not up to the level that such a high ranking would seem to prophesize. Do they have habits that can be overcome by their athleticism in the minors, but not the majors ? Did Gonzalez see fellow prospects Green and Delgado become stars because of their power, and try to emulate them ? Did the fact that he was so proficient defensively make him focus less on his approach at the plate, because his glove was keeping him in the bigs ? Sounds like a post for another time.
#2 Tony Fernandez ss
In the days before the internet, prospects like Tony Fernandez were invisible, almost mythical creatures. The only was to see them play was in person. We knew he was coming. It was just a matter of when. Signed by legendary Latin American scout Epy Guerrero from the Dominican shortstop factory of San Pedro de Macoris, Fernandez occupies this spot on the the list with an asterisk. He was the Jays' top-ranked prospect in 1983 and 84, and would've likely ranked high on a few more lists, had BA been compiling them prior to 83. Fans were impatient to see him reach the bigs, but the club took its time with his development, and he was partially blocked by his inexperience and the play of fellow Dominican Alfredo Griffin. In 1983, Bill James had wondered in his Baseball Abstract, "who the hell is Alfredo Griffin that he can play ahead of Tony Fernandez?"
Fernandez was called up for good in 1984, and did not disappoint, winning 4 consecutive Gold Gloves between 1986 and 1989, and hitting as high as .322 in 1987. Fernandez played short with grace and flair, showing incredible range, and an arcing sidearm flip throw to first that always seemed to nip the runner.
He was part of the trade for Joe Carter before the 91 season, but came back to the Jays in 93, in time to lead them to another World Series win. Fernandez had two more stints with the club before retiring in 2001. James has ranked him as the 24th best shortstop of all time, which puts him in pretty good company. He most definitely is the best shortstop in Blue Jays history.
#1 Dustin McGowan rhp
Oh, what could've been.
Some prospects never reach or even approach their ceiling for a variety of reasons. Some can't make the adjustments that are necessary after other teams find their weaknesses after a time or two around the league. Others get too distracted by the temptations of big league life. Maybe a few can't handle the fact that the game isn't coming to them as easily as it always had. And some just can't stay healthy. Like Dustin McGowan.
Drafted in the 1st round (33rd overall) by the Jays in the 2000 draft out of high school in Georgia, McGowan made the Jays' Top 10 List in 2002, 03,04, 05, and topped the list in 06. Tommy John surgery delayed his major league debut, but after shutting between the bullpen and he starting rotation for two seasons, he made 27 starts in 2007, and took a no-hitter into the 9th inning in a game against the Tigers.
And that's almost when things started to fall apart.
McGowan has spent most of the time on the disabled list since 2008, appearing in a total of only 24 games. He persevered, and battled arm and knee injuries, as well as health issues caused by diabetes, and returned at the end of the 2011 season to make 5 starts, and appeared to have the inside track on a long relief job the following season.
It's just too depressing to list ever trip he's made to the disabled list since then. Just when it seems like McGowan is on the verge of being healthy and returning to the majors, he suffers another setback. He's currently on the 60-day DL with a foot injury that the club is keeping pretty tight-lipped about. After the promise showed by his late season showing in 2011, the club signed McGowan to a 2 year extension. So, McGowan remains in Florida at extended spring training, rehabbing yet another injury.