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Top 60 All-Time Greatest Blue Jays: #41 Jose Cruz, Jr.

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Blue Jays v A’s Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Jose Luis Cruz, Jr. | CF, LF | 1997-2002

Jose Cruz, Jr. was born April 19, 1974, in Arroyo, Puerto Rico. His father, Jose Cruz, was a terrific outfielder for the Cardinals and the Astros, Bill James listed dad as the 29th best left fielder in major league history in the ‘New Historical Baseball Abstract’. Dad’s numbers were hurt by playing most of his career in the Astrodome, where fly balls went to die, but he hit .284/.354/.420 with 317 steals in a 19-year career. Junior’s uncles Hector and Tommy Cruz also played in the majors.

The Seattle Mariners drafted our Jose Cruz in the first round (3rd pick overall) of the 1995 draft out of Rice University in Texas. He was a three time All-American. The two picked before were outfielder Darin Erstad and catcher Ben Davis. Right after Cruz, the Cubs took Kerry Wood. The Braves picked him in the 15th round of the 1992 draft, but Jose decided to go to university instead.

Jose was your basic five-tool player good speed, good defense, power, strong arm, good eye at the plate, and on top of that, a switch hitter. Like I said, his dad was a heck of a player, not as good defensively, so he was a five-tool player. A few years before, the Mariners used their first-round pick on another outfielder who had the same name as his major league father, Ken Griffey, Jr. That one worked out pretty well.

Jose zipped through the minors in less than two seasons. In late May 1997, the Mariners called him up. In 49 games with the M’s, he hit 12 homers and drove in 34. The Mariners were in the pennant race that year, and their bullpen was awful. So to fix up the bullpen, they made a pair of just terrible trades. The first one, they traded Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek to the Red Sox to get Heathcliff Slocumb, a 31-year-old journeyman reliever who had a 5.79 ERA at the time of the trade. Then they traded Jose to us for Paul Spoljaric and Mike Timlin. Spoljaric had a 4.76 ERA after the trade that year, then the next season, his ERA 6.48. Timlin was much better for the M’s, saving 20 games for them in his season and bit with the team. As much as it was a good trade for us, the Boston trade has to be one of the best trades in baseball history (well, from the Red Sox side).

Anyway, Cruz continued his good rookie season, hitting a homer in his first game with us and finishing with 26. His batting average was just .248, but he had an OPS+ of 110 and finished second to Nomar Garciaparra in the Rookie of the Year vote. In 1998 Cruz started the season with the Jays but was sent down to Triple-A on June 14 with a .214 BA. They recalled him on July 31, and he went on a tear, hitting .366 with 5 homers and 28 RBI in August, bringing his average up to .253 for the season.

In 1999 Cruz again split time between Syracuse and Toronto. He played 106 games for us, mostly in center field. Fangraphs has this as his best season with a 2.5 WAR, but all his seasons with the Jays come in between 1.7 and 2.5. In 2000, he had his first full season with us, a really full season playing in all 162 games. He had a pretty good season, hitting just .242 but walking 76 times for a .323 on-base, and he hit 31 home runs. He scored 91 runs and drove in 76, hitting in every spot in the order but cleanup and 9th. With Carlos Delgado, Tony Batista, Brad Fulmer, and Cruz, we were only the 2nd team in baseball history to have four players with 30+ homers and the 2nd team to have seven players with 20 or more homers.

2001 was Jose’s best season setting his career highs in runs (92), hits (158), doubles (38), home runs (34), RBI (88), steals (32), batting average .274, and slugging .530. Baseball-Reference credits him with an oWAR of 4.0 (but none of the metrics liked his defense that year). The steals were a new part of his game; he had never before stolen more than 15 and would never again. But he’s one of only a handful of guys to have a 30/30 season and only the second in Jay’s history. Shawn Green was the first. The only part of his game that was off was his batting eye as his walks dropped to 45, and he had a career-high of 138 strikeouts. He was voted Jay MVP by the Toronto chapter of the BBWAA (anyone else find it strange that there is a Toronto chapter of the Baseball Writers of America?).

2002 was his last season in Toronto, and his numbers fell off quite a bit. Part of that was because of a month on the disabled list. The Jays moved him out of center field too, which was good as he didn’t have the range for center. After the season, he signed with the Giants as a free agent. From there, he played for the Devil Rays, Diamondbacks, Red Sox, Dodgers, Padres and finished with the Astros. He played for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic in 2006 and had a .353 average with a .476 on-base percentage.

In six seasons with the Blue Jays, Cruz hit .250/.331/.462 with 122 home runs in 698 games. He had 85 steals and an 11.5 bWAR.

Cruz is married and has two sons. One son. Trei was a third draft pick by the Tigers (yes, it make me feel old). They lived in Bellaire, Texas (the town Cruz grew up in) at one point. In Bellaire, former major leaguer Bobby Tolan’s son Robert was shot in his driveway by police after getting out of his dad’s SUV on New Year’s Eve. Robert survived the shooting.

Jose had his own story of trouble with police in Bellaire: he and his family were in his new Mercedes, and police stopped him because of a missing front license plate. They told him there were warrants out for his arrest and took him in. He ended up spending a night in jail. Of course, there were no warrants for him. They moved away soon after that.

Jose did some work for ESPN and, this past year was an assistant batting coach for the Tigers.

He had a pretty good career, 12 seasons, 204 home runs, and 1167 hits. He was a pretty good fielder, not good in center field but a good defensive corner outfielder, winning a Gold Glove in 2003 when he played with San Francisco. But he never quite lived up to what we all expected. Unfortunately, he never learned to cut down on his strikeouts.

There is a SABR write-up on him here. I like this story about him watching his dad play ball:

“I remember one time getting knocked out by a foul ball during the Caribbean World Series, literally knocked out, when I was five years old,” he told the authors of a book on baseball fathers and sons. “Later I was able to see my dad’s last hit in the big leagues. It was a grand slam. It was a great way to end a career.”

Jose Cruz’s place among Jay batting leaders:

bWAR: 26th

Batting Average (>1500 PA) 44st .250

On Base % (>1500 PA) 27th .331

Slugging % (>1500 PA) 14th .462

Games 29th 698

Runs 23rd 394

Hits 28th 640

Home Runs 12th 122

RBI 21st 355

Walks 16th 316

Strikeouts 11th 635

Stolen Bases 12th 85