The news on June 8 that the San Francisco Giants had traded outfielder Jeffrey Leonard to the Milwaukee Brewers for utility infielder Ernest Riles baffled many in the baseball world. At the time, the Giants were only 2½ games out of first place and in a good position to defend their National League West title. So why would they unload the 1987 NL Championship Series MVP for a player who was batting .252 with one homer and 9 RBIs in 41 games?
Giants general manager Al Rosen gave two reasons for the trade: outfielder Mike Aldrete, and the fact that Leonard, whose annual salary is $900,000, will become a free agent at the end of the season. "We want to make room for Aldrete to play every day," said Rosen, citing Aldrete's .297 lifetime average as a part-time player. "Whether or not I would have wanted to sign [Leonard] after this year is something else again. I don't know."
Since Rosen and manager Roger Craig rode into San Francisco in September 1985, they have stressed the importance of having a positive attitude. In fact, in their first year they exiled 13 players, some of whom were "malcontents" (Craig's word). Although nobody was willing to go on record as criticizing Leonard's behavior, one National League scout said, "Leonard is fine if he's playing every day, but he's not the kind of guy you want unhappily sitting on your bench. He isn't called Penitentiary Face because he's always smiling like Pat Robertson."
Leonard hasn't pulled the ball for power in almost a year, even though he hit four homers in the National League playoffs. "All those homers," says another scout, "came because the Cardinals pitched him away, which no one else did the second half of the season." Leonard went to the All-Star Game last year batting .298 with 16 homers and 44 RBIs, but only hit .242 with 3 homers and 19 RBIs in the second half of the regular season. In his 44 games with the Giants in '88, he had a .256 average with two homers and 20 RBIs.
In 1986 Leonard had surgery for a tendon injury to his right wrist and followed that up with operations on his left shoulder and both knees. Wrist injuries often rob players of power long after they have returned to the lineup. Just ask former Boston Red Sox star Carl Yastrzemski, who went from September 1971 to July 1972 without a homer after hitting a total of 80 the previous two seasons.
Still, the Leonard-Riles deal makes sense for the Brewers. "A change of scenery can do a player a lot of good," says Milwaukee general manager Harry Dalton, whose August 1982 trade with the Astros for pitcher Don Sutton helped bring the Brewers their only pennant. "Our scouts say he's swinging better, and we know he's a clutch player. Now that Bill Wegman's elbow and Ted Higuera's back are healthy, we have the pitching to win what is more and more a wide-open race." Dalton isn't worried because Leonard's contract runs out this year. "A player in that situation has to produce for his next contract," he says.
The Boston Red Sox could use a righthanded power hitter, too, but general manager Lou Gorman decided to pass on Leonard, according to the Boston Herald, because "he wasn't hitting and they [the Giants] were trying to dump him." While Dalton acknowledges that Gorman might be right, he adds, "When you're trying to win, you're not going to get someone who's hitting .300. You have to take a gamble or two. The American League ballparks are smaller, especially in the alleys. Leonard's wrist may get stronger. And we know he's a competitor."
In 1984 the Philadelphia Phillies sent their 1983 Championship Series MVP, Gary Matthews, to the Cubs, and he proceeded to get 82 RBIs and score 101 runs to help the Cubs win the division title. "A player sometimes no longer fits one situation and is perfect for another," says Dalton. "That's what we're counting on."
Will a change of scenery bring Leonard's big bat back to life?