A few days ago, I wrote about the Yankees acquiring pitcher David Cone near the trade deadline in 1995 on the same day that they traded for controversial outfielder Ruben Sierra. With the two in tow, the Yankees won the first American League Wild Card and stayed alive until falling in Game 5 of the memorable ALDS against the Seattle Mariners. Sierra returned to the team in '96, but quickly fell out of favor with new manager Joe Torre. Although a poor fielder uninterested in improving his defense, Sierra continually griped about spending most of his time as the team's DH. Whenever Torre did not put him in the lineup, Sierra threw a hissy fit. His self-centered personality did not fit well in the team-first clubhouse atmosphere Torre was trying to create, so he quietly encouraged GM Bob Watson to find a different home for Sierra. His performance on the field was not inspiring much confidence either. Though the two-time All-Star should have been in his prime in his age-30 season, the switch-hitter was batting just .258/.327/.403 with 11 homers and a wRC+ of 78.
The Yankees approached the trade deadline 10 games ahead of the second-place Baltimore Orioles, but management was concerned about the team's lack of righthanded power. Sierra somewhat provided that against lefthanded pitchers (.316/.367/.437 against righties on the season, though only two homers), but aside from him and fellow switch-hitter Bernie Williams, the team was very lefty-heavy. Paul O'Neill, Tino Martinez, and the recently-signed Darryl Strawberry were all fine lefthanded hitters with power, but against southpaws, the Yankees appeared neutralized. Watson set his targets high and acquired the most coveted hitter on the market--Detroit Tigers DH Cecil Fielder.
The man they called "Big Daddy" had a very compelling story behind him, having returned from a stint in Japan to stun the AL by slugging 51 homers in '90 and 44 in '91 (finishing second in AL MVP voting both years). Fielder hit only 31 dingers over four years of limited action with the Toronto Blue Jays from 1985-88, so no one saw his breakout campaign coming. He continued to crush homers great distances (out of Milwaukee's County Stadium and over the roof at Tiger Stadium), totaling 245 in just six and a half years with Detroit. That figure led all of baseball among '90s players at the time of his trade. Despite Fielder's success, the Tigers struggled to stay above .500 throughout his tenure, and by '96, they were on their way to a then-franchise-worst 109-loss season. The Yankees presented them with a good offer for their best hitter, and they took it: Fielder for Sierra and pitching prospect Matt Drews.
Fielder briefly experienced a playoff run as a rookie with the AL East champion Blue Jays in '85, but that was 11 years prior to the trade. Fielder said, "I'm going to enjoy myself. This feels great. I'm relaxed and I want to help the team. This is an opportunity for me to finally get in the hunt.'' He was extremely happy to return to competitive baseball and help the Yankees down the stretch. Sierra did not take the news well and was emotional in his final New York press conference: "I've been in this league for 10 years, so none of this surprises me. But this is hard, man. This team could go to the World Series. This is hard.''
The Yankees did not miss Sierra much, as he struggled to a .222/.306/.310 line in Detroit, then moved on to the Cincinnati Reds in '97. Throughout the next several years, Sierra continued to be a baseball vagabond, going from Cincinnati to Toronto to Chicago before ending up with the Independent League Atlantic City Surf in '99 and the Mexican League Cancun Langosteros in 2000. Sierra returned to the majors later that year with his original team, the Texas Rangers. Finally, in '03, Sierra returned to New York under Torre as a much more mature player willing to accept a bench role. Though his power was diminished, his potent bat still played a role in the team's three straight division titles from '03-'05. He retired after a poor half-season with the Minnesota Twins in '06.
While Sierra was a malcontent and easy to deal, Drews was a tough surrender for Watson. The team's top pick of the '93 draft was rated by Baseball America the #12 prospect in the game entering the '96 season. In two and a half years moving up from Low-A Oneonta to High-A Tampa and Double-A Norwich, Drews pitched a 2.71 ERA, impressing many in the organization. Yankees starter Kenny Rogers wasn't even sure that the added run support from Fielder was worth surrendering the 21-year-old righthander. That being said, Drews struggled in Triple-A Columbus with the Yankees upon his promotion there (8.41 ERA in 20.1 innings), so perhaps the Yankees saw something that made them skeptical of Drews's future performance. If so, they were correct, because Drews never made it out of Triple-A with Detroit. He remained with Toledo through the '99 season, pitching to an ugly 7.41 ERA there before the Tigers finally gave up on him. After two-thirds of an inning and four earned runs surrendered with Tampa Bay's Durham affiliate, the once-highly regarded pitching prospect was done at age 25.
Although the Yankees actually struggled for the first time all season and saw their lead in the AL East shrivel to four games by the end of August, Fielder excelled. He added true righthanded power with 13 homers and a .260/.342/.495 triple slash. The rest of the Yankees' offense got back into shape for September, and with Fielder's potent bat in the lineup, won their first division title in 15 years. Aside from a brief cold spell in the ALCS, Fielder remained hot through the playoffs, and if saves weren't such an overrated statistic, he probably could have won World Series MVP over closer John Wetteland with his .391/.440/.478 performance against the heavily-favored Atlanta Braves. Although injuries caused Fielder to decline in '97, then be forced out of baseball by the end of '98, this trade was definitely a big win for the Yankees. It's difficult to say whether or not the '96 Yankees could have broken the 18-year World Series drought without Fielder's accomplishments.
Other sources: Sherman, Joel. Birth of a Dynasty: Behind the Pinstripes with the 1996 Yankees. New York: Rodale, 2006.