The year was 1994 and Team USA was full of future Major League ball players. As impressive as their roster was, it was a young, confident 20-year old that stuck out from the pack. His name was Jose Cruz Jr., the latest “5-tool” player out of Puerto Rico and son of former All-Star and Houston Astros hero, Jose Cruz. It wouldn’t be long before Junior would be earning rave reviews playing Center Field for the Seattle Mariners, pushing Ken Griffey Jr. to the side and taking away some of the spotlight from the year’s M.V.P.
It would be ridiculous for me to say Jose played better in his rookie season than Griffey did in 1997. That year Ken Griffey Jr. hit 56 home runs and drove in 147 with a .304 average while Cruz Jr. hit 26, drove in 68, and hit below .250 for the year. The difference was the Ken didn’t hit as many as 26 home runs until his fourth full season in baseball while Jose did it right out the box. What was perhaps the biggest shock of the year was what Seattle did next. Instead of making room for the man who could have gone on to become a home run legend, they traded him away to Canada to play for the Toronto Blue Jays midway through the season, ultimately destroying Cruz Jr.’s momentum and perhaps his career.
So why did Seattle, a team that has never won a World Series trade away a future superstar? Was it to appease another one? If you had a history of being a terrible team but was suddenly making a run for the playoffs, wouldn’t you want to keep a kid who might hit 40 home runs for you? Why would you trade him away for Paul Spoljaric & Mike Timlin? It makes no sense and while the Mariners did make the playoffs that year, they ended up losing in the first round.
Jose Cruz Jr. didn’t even get a chance in Toronto in his first two full years, wasting away his youth playing 105 & 106 games in ’98 and ’99. In 2000 he became a full-time player and showed his gratitude by hitting 31 home runs and stealing 15 bases. The next year Jose hit 34 and stole 32. After a poor 2002 season the Jays traded him to San Fransisco, the next year he was headed to Tampa. In 2005 Jose Cruz Jr. bounced from the Arizone Diamondbacks to the Boston Red Sox, and finally to Los Angeles. In late 2006 the Dodgers released him but he somehow found a job with the San Diego Padres before being released yet again in 2007. Later that year the Yankees signed him to a Minor League deal but didn’t have a spot for him.
In 2008, Jose Cruz Jr. signed a minor league deal with the Houston Astros, an organization that also employs his father and gave him perhaps his final opportunity. Many had high hopes when Cruz Jr. led the team in RBI in Spring Training (20) but today Jose is hitting .083 in 28 games, no home runs and no RBI. I have always been a fan of Jose, partly because I remember watching Baseball Tonight on midnights in 1997 and seeing his awesome home runs and I always felt he was dealt a bad hand. I had hoped to see him when the Astros come to Florida but due to some insane schedule, the Marlins don’t host the Astros till September. I have a feeling deep down in my gut that by then, Jose Cruz Jr. will no longer be a Major League baseball player.