The 1971 Royals won 85 games, the first winning season in the organization's three-year history. In short time, they had developed a very solid pitching staff, finishing third in the league in runs allowed. But the offense lacked oomph. Only two Royals hitters reached double-digits in home runs, and Amos Otis led the team with a paltry 15. Although this was a pitching-heavy era, the Royals finished dead last in the league in round-trippers. And this was before they had even moved to cavernous Royals Stadium.
General Manager Cedric Tallis went to the Winter Meetings that December hoping to add some pop to his young lineup. The Sporting News laid out his options:
When the meetings opened, it appeared the Royals had only three courses of action. One was to make a deal with the Texas Rangers to either buy or trade for Frank Howard. The second alternative was to make a trade with the Phillies for Deron Johnson. The third was to negotiate with the Braves for Orlando Cepeda.
In each case, the Royals would have been acquiring an older player and, in the case of Cepeda, there was some question about the condition of his injured knee.
Howard was 35, coming off a 26 HR 83 RBI season with the Washington Senators (who moved to Texas that off-season) and was reluctant to move with the team to Dallas. Johnson was 33, but coming off a 34 HR 95 RBI season in Philly. Cepeda was 34 and coming off an injury-shortened season.
The Houston Astros had stockpiled a ton of good young talent and were ready to make a big move. Early in the off-season they made a blockbuster trade with Cincinnati, picking up first baseman Lee May, a consistent RBI man, along with two other players for a five-player package that included future Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, as well as outfielder Cesar Geronimo. This move blocked their former first round pick and highly-touted prospect, a young first baseman by the name of John Mayberry.
Mayberry had excelled in the minors, but had struggled in parts of two season with the Astros, hitting just .191/.284/.342 in 343 plate appearances. He had power and plate discipline, but Astros hitting coach Harry Walker wanted him to make more contact.
"I’m not really that much of a pull hitter," Mayberry said, "but he had me trying to make contact and going to the opposite field. That’s just not my style of hitting. I was up at the plate worrying about making contact all the time."
The Royals preferred younger players, and engaged Houston in talks. The Astros demanded to receive Royals "ace" reliever Jim York, who was still very young and was coming off a terrific season. They also wanted pitcher Lance Clemons, who had done well since converting to the mound after starting his career in the outfield. The Royals wanted a throw-in to complete the deal and received "fringe prospect" infielder Dave Grungaard. The teams agreed and the Royals had their slugger. Many observers thought the Royals had made a deal with terrific upside.
The reports on Mayberry say that he will be a super star of the Willie Stargell-Willie McCovey class if he makes it.
-"The Sporting News"
Managers who had seen Mayberry's power in the minors were impressed.
"When Mayberry makes it, he’ll sell some tickets in Kansas City because he’ll be a super star. If he’s not a prospect, then we’re all in the wrong business."
– Del Wilber, Manager of the Denver Bears of the American Association (AAA)
Not everyone thought Mayberry was headed for stardom. Anonymous scout makes his first appearance!
It was the consensus among baseball men at the winter meetings that Mayberry is an outstanding prospect, but there are some who question his ability. One, who asked to remain nameless, said Mayberry has a hitch in his swing, and does not get around on the high, inside fastball.
Expos Manager Gene Mauch rebutted that scouting report.
"Sure you can pitch to Mayberry, but you can pitch to McCovey, too…If pitchers could pinpoint the ball every time, no one would get a hit. I like Mayberry. If we had a Jim York and a Lance Clemons on our roster, then Mayberry would be wearing an Expos’ uniform right now."
With a chance to play every day in Kansas City, Big John had a breakout season in 1973. He hit .298/.394/.507 (a 168 OPS+!) with 25 HR 100 RBI. Frank Howard, Deron Johnson, and Orlando Cepeda would all struggle to stay on the field the next two seasons due to age, injury, and ineffectiveness, but Mayberry would enjoy a six-year career in Kansas City, slamming 143 home runs, and posting a 132 career OPS+ in a Royals uniform. His He would be part of back-to-back division champion winners, until he was unceremoniously traded following a disastrous hung-over performance in the 1978 American League Championship series.
Happy Birthday Big John. May Dayton Moore and the Royals make many trades as successful as the one the Royals made on December 18, 1971.