Player evaluation is never an exact science. Often, a team makes a trade that looks completely inconsequential at the time and, down the road, turns out to look pretty silly.
For instance, thirty years ago today, the Royals traded away a man who would later surpass the 50-homer mark, lead the league in homers twice and in RBIs three years in a row. Thirty years ago today, the Royals traded Cecil Fielder to the Toronto Blue Jays for outfielder Leon Roberts.
Many forget (or never knew) that Fielder had been a draft pick of the Royals, going to them in the fourth round of the 1982 draft’s secondary phase (after he’d been drafted in the 31st round by the Baltimore Orioles, but didn’t sign in 1981). He signed quickly and landed in the Pioneer League with the Royals affiliate the Butte Copper Kings. In 69 games there, he hit .322/.417/.645 with 28 doubles and 20 homers. He wasn’t even 20 years old yet, and already there were concerns about the 6’3″ 220 pound Fielder’s size. After a home run earned Fielder a free dinner, Butte manager Tommy Jones said “The last thing Cecil needs is another free steak dinner.”
In return, the Royals got Leon Roberts, a journeyman outfielder (Kansas City was his sixth organization since 1974). At the time, the Royals already had Willie Wilson, Amos Otis and Jerry Martin in place in the outfield, so Roberts was additional depth and for a time, he was almost part of the catching competition. Manager Dick Howser said of Roberts that “I respect his ability and approach to the game”. Roberts was there to fill in when Martin missed most of the season due to injuries. He split time with Pat Sheridan, Joe Simpson and others. Roberts had a .258/.313/.404 line for the Royals in 84 games.
In 1984, it was a different story. Otis and Martin had moved on and Wilson had been suspended until mid-May for his involvement in the cocaine scandal that also involved Willie Aikens (as well as Martin). Sheridan and Darryl Motley stepped into starting spots while Butch Davis played most often until Wilson’s return. Roberts didn’t play much, making it into just 29 games in 1984, hitting .222/.300/.289. Towards the end of the year, he ran into back problems and played just a few games in September, his last in the big leagues. He played in 1985 for Louisville in Triple A, but was never called up by Detroit. He’s currently the hitting coach for Houston’s Triple A team in Oklahoma City.
Fielder, we know, went on to multiple All-Star games and, after bouncing up and down the minor leagues for the Blue Jays, ended up being pushed out of Toronto by Fred McGriff and landed in Japan. When he returned in 1990, he did so in a big way, hitting 51 homers for the Detroit Tigers and finishing second in American League MVP voting. He followed that up with a 44 homer 1991 season and again was the MVP runner up.
He went on to have a respectable career and stayed productive for years, and walked away from the game with a ring won as a member of the New York Yankees as part of their 1996 championship team. But by his early 30s, his power was starting to fade and his weight was always a concern. His two career stolen bases (both in 1996) ended up as sarcastic highlights. Today, we can be reminded of Fielder’s power by looking at his son Prince Fielder, whose similar build brings to mind the phrase “like father, like son”.
Prior to his trip to Japan, Fielder was looking like a typical AAAA player. He was productive, but he was primarily used as part of a platoon by Toronto. The trade the Royals made looks terrible on paper, but there’s not much to beat them up for. Fielder’s potential took years to realize, though it’s an interesting question to think about. In 1986, Hal McRae was on his way out and Fielder could have been in place to take over at designated hitter, but in 1987, there would have been a logjam as George Brett moved to first base from third and Steve Balboni moved to DH (and struggled). If Fielder could have gotten full-time work and would have been productive, who knows? Maybe every spring Royals fans would be asking who would be the one to break Fielder’s Royals single season home run record.
This deal is similar to the move that sent Jose Bautista to the New York Mets for Justin Huber in July of 2004. It wasn’t until years later that Bautista became a home run machine. But you can still find one joker here or there on a messageboard complaining about how the “Royals trade all of their good players like Jose Bautista”. At the time, neither trade seemed like a big move and in the big picture, neither were truly big moves either. Fielder contributed to the Blue Jays but wasn’t a star until getting to Detroit. Bautista had been drafted from Pittsburgy by Baltimore in the 2003 Rule 5 draft, waived by the Orioles, claimed by the Rays, purchased by Kansas City and then traded to the Mets, then back to the Pirates all in the span of eight months. Anyone who complains about that trade is clearly overlooking the context.
But like much of baseball history, these are the kind of deals that make great footnotes in a player’s narrative. They act as nice bits of trivia and it’s always interesting to look back.
Here’s one last bit of trivia – Fielder went 1 for 3 against the Royals in the 1985 ALCS. We all know how that one turned out.
(Much of the information for this article came from archives of the Sporting News via SABR.org.)