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Top 40 All-Time Greatest Blue Jays: #22 Kelly Gruber

Kelly Wayne Gruber | 3B | 1984-1992 | Career Stats

Although his major league career began with the Blue Jays, most of Kelly Gruber's minor league experience was acquired as a member of the Cleveland Indians' farm system. A lanky, 6'0" slick-fielding thirdbaseman from Austin, Texas, Gruber was selected tenth overall in the 1980 amateur draft, which infamously featured two high profile, would-be underachievers selected by the Mets, Darryl Strawberry and Billy Beane.

Although Gruber was obviously a very gifted athlete, he was extremely raw, a trait not all that uncommon among high school draftees. He displayed adequate speed and power in the lower minors, but he struggled mightily to reach base and his strikeout rates were significantly higher than his walk rates. Even if his performance merited playing time at the major league level, however, the Indians had no need for an everyday third baseman, for Toby Harrah, an All-Star who had a penchant for regularly reaching base, was well entrenched at that position. As a result, the Blue Jays jumped at the opportunity to acquire a talented, albeit inexperienced third baseman, who would be primed to eventually displace the aging platoon of Rance Mulliniks and Garth Iorg. Eventually, the Indians decided to expose Gruber in the 1983 Rule V draft and he was immediately snatched up by the Blue Jays.

In Syracuse, Toronto's AAA affiliate both then and now, Gruber's production rose to new heights. He hit more than 20 home runs for the first time in his career (21, to be exact) and, although his OBP was a mortal .330, his OPS of .820 was evidence that he'd probably hold his own at the major league level. He was awarded with a brief September call-up in 1984, though, like most first-time call-ups, Gruber struggled to adjust to the difficul, fast-paced major league level.

It wasn't until 1987, after alternating between the major league level and AAA for two forgettable seasons, that Gruber claimed his role as an everyday player. Unfortunately, his performance was ghastly, as both his offence and defence were suspect. His patience at the plate was very poor, as he only walked 17 times in over 350 plate appearances. Moreover, his Rate2 was 93, a below average figure for fielders, which would be his lowest total until his abysmal 1992 season.

It wasn't until 1988 that Gruber staked his claim as a legitimate major league third baseman and fan favourite. He hit .278/.328/.438 with 16 home runs and 81 RBI, not great totals, of course, but respectable, especially relative to his third base contemporaries. By then it was evident that Gruber's patience at the plate would never blossom as many hoped it would. Fortunately, he never allowed his strikeout totals to spin out of control, for he simply didn't walk enough to counteract it, as many of today's sluggers manage, or at least attempt, to do.

In 1989 and 1990, he was a player smack dab in the middle of his prime. He made the All-Star team in both seasons, and finished fourth in MVP voting in 1990, behind Rickey Henderson, Cecil Fielder, and Roger Clemens, who were each well-established superstars.

On April 16, 1989, against the Kansas City Royals, Gruber became the first Blue Jay to hit for the cycle, going 4-6 with six RBI. In fact, hitting for the cycle is such a rare feat that only Jeff Frye, who accomplished it in 2001, is the only other Blue Jay who can lay claim to it. Frye, however, was told to hold up at first in the seventh inning, even though a second double was easily attainable. As a result, purists may argue that his cycle wasn't "natural." To be fair, though, he accomplished his in four at-bats, while Gruber required six at-bats.

Gruber's run as one of the game elite was very short-lived, as would unfortunately become the case. His rapid decline began in 1991, after he injured his hand, an injury that lingered for the entire season. In 1992, when the Blue Jays were on their way to becoming World Series champions, Gruber was merely a shade of himself, ultimately posting a paltry line of .229/.275/.352. He had one last great moment in him, however, as he took part in a classic, controversial "double play" in the 1992 World Series. Video evidence clearly shows that Deion Sanders was tagged out by Gruber, which would have made him the third out of a sensational triple play, but he incorrectly called safe. Nevertheless, the Blue Jays won the game and, eventually, the World Series, defeating the Braves in six games.

Gruber was traded to the California Angels in the offseason in order to make way for a young Ed Sprague, a player who would adopt Gruber's aversion to taking a walk. Injuries, which continually resurfaced, eventually necessitated Gruber's retirement from the game. He attempted a comeback as a member of the Baltimore Orioles' farm system, but it was ultimately unsuccessful.