The Reds were looking for some outfield help after the 1996 season. The Reds had finished first in the 1995 National League Central Division with a 85-59 record under now departed manager Dave Johnson. The Reds had swept the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division series, but had been swept by the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series, scoring only five runs in that four-game series. The Reds had finished second in the NL in runs scored in 1995 with 5.19 runs per game. However, following that season outfielders Ron Gant (.276, 29 HR, 88 RBI, .386 OBP, .940 OPS) and Jerome Walton (.290/8/22, .368 OBP, .892 OPS) left for free agency and the Reds released centerfielder Darren Lewis (.245, 11 steals in 58 games).
The Reds went looking for outfield replacements, but the limited budget of the Reds only signed washed up veterans and busted prospects. Speedy centerfielder Vince Coleman was signed but batted only .155 in 33 games before being released. They received Coleman’s “twin,” Curtis Goodwin, in a trade with the Orioles, but Goodwin batted only .228 in 49 games. The Reds traded for for Braves prospect Mike Kelly, who batted .184 in 19 games. The Reds promoted prospect Eric Owens, who turned out to be a bust (.200/0/9, .511 OPS in 88 games). Eric Davis gave them some quality work after being signed as a free agent (.287/26/83, .394 OBP, .917 OPS), but he filed for free agency again after only one return season. The Reds even went and traded for aging, overweight, troubled Kevin Mitchell (.325 BA/.447 OBP/.579 SLP, 1.026 OPS in 37 games), but eventually suspended him for not showing up to a weekend series in Pittsburgh. He, too, filed for free agency at season’s end.
Meanwhile, new 1996 manager Ray Knight’s team fell to .500 at 81-81 and third place in the NL Central. The Reds offense dropped by .39 run per game while their defense allowed .34 run more per game, nearly a one-run per game turn around. They needed some outfielder power and on the day that Davis filed free agency, the Reds traded for Ruben Sierra. Reds General Manager Jim Bowden also went out and re-signed football player and former Red Deion Sanders to add speed and excitement to the lineup despite the lack of a throwing arm strong enough to play centerfield.
Sierra had been an all-star as recently as 1994 with the Oakland A’s when he hit .268 with 23 homers and 92 rbi. The A’s had dealt him to the New York Yankees who then turned and dealt him to the Detroit Tigers one year later for first baseman Cecil Fielder. For the Yankees, Fielder supplied some additional power, batting .260 with 13 homers in 53 games. The Tigers didn’t turn out so lucky. Sierra, who had popped 11 homers in 96 games with the Yankees, slumped to .222 with one home run in 46 games for the Tigers. Detroit was all too happy to deal him to the Reds for the 1997 season (the AP reports that Sierra made $6.7 million in 1997).
Well, Sierra didn’t hit for the Reds in 1997 either, batting .244 with two homers in 25 games before being released in May. Sierra signed with the Toronto Blue Jays and he didn’t hit for them, and he didn’t hit for the Chicago White Sox either. In 1999, Sierra played for an independent team before making a major league comeback in 2000 at age 34. He had some productive seasons as a role player playing through 2006 at age 40. Deion Sanders batted .273 with 56 steals in 115 games and newly acquired Chris Stynes batted .348 with an .879 OPS in 49 games and Jon Nunnally batted .318 with 13 homers and a 1.002 OPS in 65 games.
The 1997 Reds finished the season 76-86, again third in the NL Central, but this time with a losing record. Knight was replaced at midseason by Jack McKeon who went 33-30 in his 63 games at the helm. The Reds team was so piecemeal that only three position players had more than 440 plate appearances: 3B Willie Greene (578), CF Deion Sanders (509), and 2B Bret Boone (501). The Ruben Sierra trade really wasn’t a bad one for the Reds, talent wise. Neither Bailey nor Conner ever played in the majors; in fact, both ended their careers back in the Reds farm system a few years later. However, if Sierra was paid $6.7 million as the sources say (may be the Tigers paid a portion…), then the deal was a major bust. And, Sierra (and Coleman and Goodwin and Sanders and Kelly and Owens) are the types of athletic players that didn’t pan out in the Reds outfield during a time of the some of the highest scoring offense in baseball history. Bowden’s Reds were on the hunt for toolsy athletic outfielders rather than baseball players with proven winning skills.
I don’t necessarily fault Jim Bowden for this by the way. He was extremely creative in finding ways of making the Reds budget work. And, if he was going to err in talent, he decided to err on the side of toolsy players who could possibly be developed. However, sometimes it just didn’t work, and the resources were drying up during the mid 1990’s and the Ruben Sierra trade and outfield fallout at this time are prime examples of what can go wrong.