Unable to supplant either Lou Brock, Bake McBride or Reggie Smith as an outfield starter, Jose Cruz left the Cardinals in 1974 and fulfilled his potential with the Astros.
Though he had been a sensation in the minor leagues and in the Puerto Rican winter league, Cruz, a left-handed batter and right fielder, struggled with the Cardinals after debuting with them in 1970. His stock dropped so low that the Cardinals didn’t even get a player in return for him.
On Oct. 24, 1974, the Cardinals sent Cruz, 27, to the Astros in a cash transaction for $25,000.
A grateful Preston Gomez, the Astros’ manager, told The Sporting News, “This boy Cruz is better than anybody we had on the ball club last year. He can hit with power, has better than average speed and he has a good arm.”
(Gomez had his eye on Cruz for several years. In 1971, as manager of the Padres, Gomez told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he was impressed by Cruz and teammate Luis Melendez. “I like Cruz the best of the lot,” Gomez said of the Cardinals outfield prospects in April 1971. “But Melendez is quite a ballplayer, too … I’d take either him or Cruz right now. I wish we had something to offer the Cardinals.”)
Cruz spent 13 seasons with the Astros, batting .292 with 1,937 hits in 1,870 games. He twice was named a National League all-star (1980 and 1985), won two Silver Sluggers awards (1983-84), led the league in hits (with 189 in 1983) and helped the Astros to the first three postseason appearances in franchise history.
Struggles in St. Louis
Though impressed by his range and arm, the Cardinals had found Cruz to be an undisciplined hitter, who regularly swung at bad pitches.
Cruz made 89 outfield starts for the 1972 Cardinals and batted .235 overall. In 1973, he made 110 outfield starts for St. Louis and hit .227 overall.
By 1974, Cruz was relegated primarily to being a pinch-hitter and late-inning defensive replacement. He made only 25 outfield starts for the 1974 Cardinals and batted .261 overall. He hit .217 as a pinch-hitter that season.
“The Redbirds had been losing patience with Cruz, who seemed to be leaving too many hits in the winter leagues, which he burned up,” The Sporting News reported.
With Jerry Mumphrey, Jim Dwyer and Larry Herndon also vying for outfield playing time, the Cardinals deemed Cruz expendable. The Sporting News described Cruz as “a forgotten man” most of the 1974 season.
In five seasons with the Cardinals, Cruz batted .247 with just 298 hits in 445 games, 26 home runs and 128 RBI.
With Bob Watson moving from the outfield to first base, Cruz was handed the Astros’ starting right field job in 1975. Gomez was fired that season _ he became a Cardinals coach for manager Red Schoendienst in 1976 _ but Cruz remained a starting outfielder for Houston every season through 1987.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals ended up with a void in right field. Reggie Smith was traded to the Dodgers in 1976. The Cardinals tried Hector Cruz, Jose’s brother, as the right fielder in 1977 and then Jerry Morales in 1978. It wasn’t until 1979, when George Hendrick took over, that the position finally stabilized.
Previously: Ron Plaza was mentor to Steve Carlton, Jose Cruz