Tribe’s Rule 5 Loss Gruber Became Mainstay in Toronto
Bob Toth | On 14, Dec 2017
Projecting and developing young talent is not always easy. It can be what separates the good teams from the bad teams, at least those teams who cannot just buy replacement parts to compensate for their own internal misses.
The Rule 5 draft is one way a team can build up its roster, but generally, players selected in such a transaction rarely make significant contributions in the game of baseball.
Cleveland Indians fans who know the name Kelly Gruber likely remember him as being one of a handful of such players who found success and long careers in a new home. He is one of the more notable names lost by the Indians franchise in the long history of the alternative drafting process.
Gruber was Cleveland’s tenth overall pick in the 1980 draft after playing shortstop at Westlake High School in Austin, Texas. He came from impressive pedigree – he was the son of a former 1960’s NFL and CFL running back, Claude King, and a former Miss Texas.
He joined the Indians’ farm club in Batavia in the New York-Penn League after his selection and struggled in the field and at the plate, prompting then-coach Luis Isaac to recommend a move for the 18-year-old to third base. In 61 games, he had hit .217 and had committed 21 errors, but showed some raw talent and quickness.
“As a third baseman you have to be quick – make a step, take a dive, catch the ball, come up throwing,” Isaac, a 16-year minor league catcher, shared later about Gruber’s transition. “But at shortstop you have a little more time to get to the ball. The errors he was making, they were because he was too quick to the ball.”
Gruber was moved to the Waterloo Diamonds the following season. Life at the plate improved, as he hit .290 with 43 extra base hits, but he led the Midwest League in errors at shortstop. The trend continued the following year as he was promoted to Double-A Chattanooga, as both fielding and throwing errors led to a .918 fielding percentage that seemed to be affecting him at the plate all year long.
The Indians finally moved Gruber to third after a handful of error-filled opportunities at short to start his fourth season in the organization, now with the club’s Double-A Buffalo affiliate. His manager felt that Gruber had shown all that he had to provide in a .263 season with 15 homers and 54 RBI. His assessment of the still young Gruber was thought to be a key reason behind the Indians not protecting him prior to the Rule 5 draft.
In Nashville, Tennessee, on December 5, 1983, Toronto selected him in the Rule 5 draft as one of their two selections on the day. The Indians made a selection of their own, picking pitcher Tom Waddell off of the roster of the Richmond Braves.
The Indians, meanwhile, headed deeper into their offseason with Toby Harrah as the team’s third baseman. They had also picked up a young prospective replacement for Harrah at the hot corner when they acquired Brook Jacoby and outfielder Brett Butler on October 21st from Atlanta as the players to be named later from the two clubs’ trade on August 28th that shipped starter Len Barker and $150,000 cash to the Braves.
Harrah, who played in all 162 games and was an All-Star for the Tribe in 1982, saw his numbers and games played decline in 1983 and was 35 years old. The Indians packaged him with a player to be named later (Rick Browne) and sent the veteran to the New York Yankees in February for George Frazier, Otis Nixon, and Guy Elston. Jacoby took over the job, one that he held in the city through the rest of the decade.
Gruber made the Blue Jays’ Major League team out of spring training. He debuted for the Blue Jays at home on April 20, 1984, but was playing hurt. Near the end of the spring camp, he dislocated his right index finger trying to steal a base and, despite being able to reset the finger, he was having difficulties throwing or swinging without pain.
The Blue Jays hoped to retain his rights, but wanted to send the struggling Gruber to Triple-A Syracuse, so they worked out a trade with Cleveland, sending catcher Geno Petralli in exchange for the third base prospect.
Back in the minors and with a chance to heal up, Gruber hit .269 with 21 homers and 55 RBI in 97 games with the club and earned a September call up. He notched his first Major League hit in impressive fashion, clearing the Green Monster at Fenway Park for a home run.
He played sparingly over the next few seasons, appearing in just five games in 1985 and in 87 games (at six different positions) in 1986 before settling in to a more frequent role at third base in 1987. He appeared in 138 games that season and hit .235, but would bounce back with a .278 average, 16 homers, 33 doubles, and 81 RBI the next season.
In 1989, he was named to the first of two consecutive American League All-Star teams and hit the first cycle in Toronto history with four hits, four runs scored, and six RBI at home against the Kansas City Royals. He hit .290 that season with 18 homers and 73 RBI before setting career highs the following season with 31 homers and 118 RBI for a Blue Jays team on the rise. He was also recognized with Silver Slugger and Gold Glove awards following the season and placed fourth in the AL Most Valuable Player voting.
Following the season, the team inked him to a three-year contract worth $11 million. Injuries to his hand, knee, ankle, and neck would slow him significantly over the next few seasons, but he would see postseason action for the second time in 1991 (following the Jays’ appearance in 1989) before the team reached and won the World Series in 1992.
A bone spur in his neck and a rotator cuff tear sustained in the 1992 playoffs eventually derailed his career. He was dealt by the Blue Jays to the California Angels after the 1992 season for young infielder Luis Sojo. He spent much of his time with the club on the 60-day disabled list and played in just 18 games, hitting .277 with three doubles, three homers, and nine RBI. In September, he was given his release.
Gruber would eventually have a piece of his hip bone fused into his neck in 1995 to repair that injury. He received calls from clubs about coming back to play and, in 1996, he signed a minor league deal with the Baltimore Orioles, who hoped to pair him at second base alongside Cal Ripken Jr. He was the final cut of spring training and went to the minors, playing well but lacking a spot on a contending Orioles roster. Then, the injury bug bit again, and he dealt with a strained hip flexor and a strained right shoulder, bringing his career back to a halt and ultimately to its end.
Gruber had a successful career overall, playing for ten seasons and hitting 117 home runs while winning a ring in the 1992 World Series.
Surprisingly, losing him in the Rule 5 draft did not hurt the Indians, as Jacoby manned the third base position well for the Tribe and became a two-time All-Star in his own right. The two were even teammates for the 1990 All-Star game, both backing up Boston’s Wade Boggs on the roster.
While it is hard to envision the Indians of the 1980s without Jacoby, it could have been a possibility had Gruber developed into the infielder Cleveland hoped for and needed when they made him their first round pick in 1980. As it stands, the Rule 5 system worked out well for Toronto, who got their third baseman of the future in Gruber, while the Indians were able to turn the aging Barker into two valuable pieces of their future, including the fan favorite Jacoby.
Photo: Richard Mackson/USA TODAY Sports