KC Royals: Why trading Cecil Fielder didn’t pay off

The Detroit Tigers honored power hitting Cecil Fielder for his contributions to that organization Sunday. But save for a little-noticed 1982 trade, Fielder, a first baseman and designated hitter who clubbed over 300 homers and drove in more than 1,000 runs in his 13-year major league career, might have found himself honored by the KC Royals instead.

The Royals traded Fielder, who’d played just one minor league season after they drafted him in 1982, to Toronto for veteran outfielder Leon Roberts after that season, setting off a chain of events that took Fielder to Toronto, Japan, Detroit, the Yankees, the Angels and Cleveland.

Casual baseball fans may not even remember Roberts, and some probably confuse him with Leon “Bip” Roberts, another outfielder who also played for Kansas City.

Had they been able to foretell the future, the Royals probably would have held on to Fielder and addressed the perceived roster hole Roberts filled differently—Roberts played his final major league game before Fielder played the first of his excellent career.

Why did the KC Royals trade prospect Cecil Fielder in the first place?

Trading Fielder despite the 20 homers and .322/.417/.645 Rookie ball slash line he put up the summer he was drafted may haunt Kansas City still today, but the Royals apparently felt the need to secure an outfielder to back up Jerry Martin and future Royals team Hall of Famers Amos Otis, who came to club in one of the best deals it ever made and became one of its first All-Stars, and Willie Wilson, a role they obviously believed Roberts could fill. And with Willie Aikens seemingly entrenched at first base, the club apparently viewed Fielder as a project and as expendable.

What could the KC Royals have done instead of trading Cecil Fielder?

Rather than dealing Fielder for Roberts, Kansas City had options in the outfield when they traded him.

Veteran defensive standout César Gerónimo was on the roster, although his contributions as a hitter were dwindling at the time.

Youngster Butch Davis had just completed a decent Double-A season (.256 with 10 homers and 57 RBIs in 122 games) and had batted .300 with 13 homers in Class A the year before. (He tore up the minors in 1983 by collecting a combined 54 extra base hits (including 19 homers) and 42 steals with a .317 average, then hit .344 in 130 big league plate appearances).

Pat Sheridan proved he was a solid outfield prospect by hitting .298 with a .365 OBP at Omaha in ’81; although he missed much of 1982 with injuries, the .270 he hit in 109 games with the Royals in ’83 meant he probably could have been what the club needed when they traded Fielder for Roberts.

Darryl Motley had been in the organization for five years and had power (18 homers at Omaha in ’81) and could hit for average (.288 at Omaha in ’81 and .312 across A and Double-A in ’80). His .284 and 15 homers in 1984 suggest he would have been better than Roberts.

So, Kansas City had good outfielders to choose from. Why the Royals didn’t opt for someone from this talented assortment, instead of trading Fielder for Roberts, is an excellent question.

And what of Roberts? He hit .258 in 84 games in his first year with the Royals, then .222 in 28 games in ’84. Kansas City let him go after his second season and he never played in the majors again. While Davis ended up struggling, Sheridan and Motley had several serviceable big league seasons.

What happened to Cecil Fielder after he was traded by the KC Royals?

Fielder took a long time to reach his full potential as he had only 558 plate appearances over parts of four seasons with Toronto, after which the Jays sold his contract to Japan’s Hanshin Tigers. The move changed Fielder’s world—he hit 38 home runs for Hanshin in 1989 before giving the Major Leagues another shot.

Fielder signed with Detroit for the 1990 season and smacked 51 home runs and drove in 132 runs to become just the second player in the previous 25 years to hit at least 50 homers (George Foster was the other).

Over the next seven years Fielder became a fan favorite in Detroit and averaged 35 home runs per season before spending his final years bouncing between the Yankees, Angels and Cleveland. He finished his career with 319 homers and 1,008 RBIs.

His son Prince also had a stellar big league career. Born in 1984 while his father was in the Toronto organization, Prince, who spent part of his career with the Tigers after signing with them as a free-agent in 2012, matched Cecil’s 319 home runs and had 20 more RBIs than his father in his own 12-year career.

Hindsight is 20/20. Would Cecil Fielder have turned into the same power hitter in Kauffman Stadium that he became in hitter-friendly Tiger Stadium? We can only speculate.