In celebration of Black History Month, throughout February, teams across Minor League Baseball are taking a look back at five of the best Black players to suit up for their club.
While some of these standout performers went on to long and illustrious Major League careers, others simply had great Minor League careers or, in some cases, just one incredible season that went down as “a year for the ages.”
Here is a look at five of the best Black baseball players ever to suit up for the Naturals, plus four other players that stood out during their time in Northwest Arkansas and in the Major Leagues.
MATT FIELDS (pictured above)
After being selected in the 44th round of the 2004 MLB Draft by the then-Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Matt Fields spent six seasons in Tampa Bay’s minor league system, reaching Double-A and playing parts of two seasons with the Montgomery Biscuits. After a successful stint in Independent Baseball in 2011 with the Southern Illinois Miners of the Frontier League, Fields landed with the Kansas City Royals and had a season to remember in 2013 with the Northwest Arkansas Naturals.
The Opening Day first baseman for Northwest Arkansas that season, Fields played in 131 games and dazzled the Texas League with his jaw-dropping power. Voted as a mid-season All-Star, Fields demolished 23 home runs in front of his home fans to win the league’s All-Star Home Run Derby as a part of the Texas League All-Star Game held at Arvest Ballpark.
When the regular season ended, Fields led the league with 31 home runs, a mark that still stands as the Naturals’ single-season home run record. He also led the team with 213 total bases, 87 runs batted in, 60 walks, a .469 slugging percentage and a .794 OPS. He became just the fourth (of now eight) players to hit two grand slams for the Naturals and while he only spent one season in Northwest Arkansas, Fields still sits in third place on the franchise’s all-time home run leaderboard.
Fields spent 2014 with Triple-A Omaha and returned in 2015, before a stint in Double-A with the Arizona Diamondbacks. In total, he played 957 games across 10 Minor League seasons, adding 165 more games in the Independent League before hanging up his cleats following the 2016 season.
DERRICK ROBINSON (photo credit John Owen)
A 4th-round pick by the Kansas City Royals in the 2006 MLB Draft, Robinson rose from Rookie Ball to Class-A and then Advanced-A, before being assigned to Northwest Arkansas for the 2010 season. One of nearly 20 players that would go on to reach the Majors, the team’s everyday center fielder had one of the best offensive seasons in franchise history, as he helped the Naturals capture their first Texas League Championship. He then returned to Springdale for the 2011 season and continued to turn heads.
Few players have played more games in a Naturals uniform than Robinson, who amassed 234 across two seasons, 10th all-time in franchise history. He ranks among the career leaders in nearly every offensive category, from at-bats to runs scored and hits, triples, walks and of course stolen bases.
Robinson led the Texas League in steals for two consecutive years, swiping 50 bags while being named a Texas League All-Star 2010 and recognized as the recipient of the Royals’ Willie Wilson Award, presented to the organization’s top base stealer. He took things up a notch in 2011 by stealing 55 bases, which is still the Naturals’ single-season individual record. His 105 steals are the most for a player in Naturals’ history, ahead of notorious speedsters like Terrance Gore, Jarrod Dyson, and more.
The fleet-footed outfielder is one of two players to steal four bases in a game… and did it twice, once in April 2010 and another time in August 2011. He’s also one of five players who has been intentionally walked twice. His 27-game on-base streak is tied for the second-longest in club history, as he hit .336 with a .368 OBP from June 16 to July 20.
Robinson was the 27th player to make their MLB debut after playing in Northwest Arkansas, suiting up for the Cincinnati Reds on April 5th, 2013, and spending the entire season with the Big-League club, where he played in 102 games and hit .255 with most of his playing time coming in left field.
JARROD DYSON (photo credit John Owen)
When reading through the Naturals record books, Jarrod Dyson’s name is one you’ll come across several times. A 50th-round pick by the Royals in the 2006 MLB Draft, the outfielder quickly ascended through the Royals system and had made it to Double-A Northwest Arkansas by 2009.
Between 2009-2010, Dyson played 70 games for the Naturals and simply could not be stopped on the basepaths. In 2009, he led the club with 37 steals, the 10th-most in Northwest Arkansas history. His three steals in the 2009 postseason also tied for the most by a Naturals player in a single postseason.
The eighth player to reach the Big Leagues after playing in Northwest Arkansas, Dyson made his MLB Debut with the Royals on September 7th, 2010, in Minnesota. Since his debut, the native of Mississippi has played parts of 12 seasons in the Major Leagues, including eight with Kansas City and stints with Arizona, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Toronto, and Chicago (AL). Dyson played a key role in the Royals’ run to the 2014 World Series and their 2015 World Series win, including three at-bats in the World Series.
His 266 stolen bases across 992 Major League games ranks 6th among active Major Leaguers, while his 84.44% success rate is 3rd among active players.
NICK HEATH (photo credit John Owen)
A 16th-round pick in the 2016 MLB Draft by the Royals, Heath was already promoted to Double-A by July 2018 and remained with the Naturals until a bump to Triple-A Omaha in late July 2019, totaling 120 games with the club across two seasons.
His 18 steals in the month of May 2019 are the most ever for a Naturals player in a single month, including a four-steal game on May 20th against the Arkansas Travelers, he became just the second player (and most recent) to accomplish the feat. He went on to lead the 2019 club with 50 steals and seven triples, which rank 3rd and 5th respectively in the Naturals’ single season record book.
Factoring in 10 steals from the 2018 season, his 60 are the 5th-most all-time in franchise history. Between his time in Wilmington and Northwest Arkansas in 2019, Heath combined to steal 39 bases and was recognized as the recipient of the Royals’ Willie Wilson Award, presented to the organization’s top base stealer, the fourth Naturals player to be recognized with the honor.
Without a Minor League season in 2020, Heath became the 98th Naturals alum to reach the Big Leagues, debuting with the Royals on July 30th, 2020, in a home game against the Detroit Tigers and played 15 games with Kansas City in the shortened season. In April 2021, the Royals traded the speedy outfielder to the Arizona Diamondbacks where he added 20 more Major League games to his resume.
KHALIL LEE (photo credit John Owen)
One of the Royals’ top prospects after being drafted in the 3rd round of the 2016 MLB Draft, Lee was another quick riser through the system, with Double-A Northwest Arkansas by late June 2018. He returned to the Naturals in 2019 and stayed with the club for the entire season, playing in 129 games and 158 across his two seasons in Springdale.
The 2019 season was one to remember for Lee, as he stole 53 bases to lead the Texas League, just two shy of Derrick Robinson’s all-time mark of 55, set in 2011. Among qualified hitters, he had the highest batting average on the 2019 team as well, hitting .264 with a team-best .363 on-base percentage, while also leading the Naturals in runs scored (74), walks (65, led Texas League), the only Natural to ever lead the league in walks. That season, he was one of six Naturals named to the Texas League All-Star team.
Between his two seasons with Northwest Arkansas, you’ll find Lee’s name in several career leaderboards, as he ranks 6th all-time in steals (55), 10th in on-base percentage (.357), and his 65 walks in 2019 are the fourth-most in a single season for a Northwest Arkansas hitter.
Added to the Royals’ 40-man roster in November 2020, Lee was traded to the New York Mets a few months later, in a three-team deal that netted the Royals Andrew Benintendi. On May 12th, 2021, Lee was called up to the Major Leagues for the first time but waited until May 17th to make his MLB debut in Atlanta. He played in 11 games and recorded his first big league hit and RBI on May 21st against Miami.
BEST OF THE REST
Terrance Gore played parts of three seasons with Northwest Arkansas, hitting .257 across 192 games with the Naturals between 2015 and 2017, while stealing 91 bases in 98 tries. His 91 steals are second-most in franchise history and his 92.9% success rate is the best among all Naturals players with at least 10 career steal attempts. Gore debuted with Kansas City in 2014 and has spent parts of the last 8 years in the Majors, between the Royals, Cubs, Dodgers and Braves. Most impressively, he has three World Series rings to his name, from his time with the 2015 Royals, 2020 Dodgers, and 2021 Braves.
Jeremy Jeffress is one of the most experienced MLB pitchers to have played in Northwest Arkansas, pitching in 10 games for the Naturals between 2011 and 2012 while in the Royals organization. Debuting with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2010, he’s pitched 11 seasons in the Major Leagues between the Brewers (2010, 2014-19), Royals (2011-12), Toronto Blue Jays (2013-14), Texas Rangers (2016-17) and Chicago Cubs (2020). He was an All-Star in 20198 with Milwaukee and has pitched in 414 games for those five clubs since his debut. Among pitchers who appeared in at least 10 games for the Naturals, his 414 MLB games are the 4th-most, while his 424.1 big league innings among such pitchers in club history ranks 9th.
While only with the Naturals for a brief period of time in 2008, Devon Lowery had one of the most dominant stints of any player to suit up for Northwest Arkansas. Across nine games in the club’s inaugural season, he allowed just one earned run across 13.0 innings (0.69 ERA), while striking out 17 batters. After just a month with the Naturals, the right-handed reliever was promoted to Triple-A Omaha at the start of May and an impressive performance there earned him a September call-up. Lowery made his MLB debut on September 5, 2008 and pitched in five games that month for the Royals, striking out six hitters across 4.1 innings.
Corey Smith’s 2009 campaign with the Naturals was one of the greatest single seasons of all-time for a Naturals hitter, hitting .249 with 21 home runs and 90 runs batted in across 140 games as he helped Northwest Arkansas reach the Texas League Championship Series for the first time in the franchise’s second season. The corner infielder led the league in at-bats (550), while leading the Naturals in hits (137), runs (67), doubles (29), homers and runs batted in. No Naturals hitter has ever played in more games or taken more at-bats in a single season, while his 90 RBI are the second-most and 21 homers are tied for seventh-most. While Smith didn’t reach the Majors, he played over 1400 games in the Minors between 2000 and 2012 and reached Triple-A, with successful stints in Independent Baseball as well.