Sometimes listed as “Chico” Cardenas, Leo was a Gold Glove shortstop who was named to five All-Star teams. The Cuban born Cardenas was a sound defender who possessed modest power. In the days before A-Rod and Tejada, shortstops weren’t known for blasting, but Chico drilled 20 homeruns in 1966 for the Reds. Chico had six seasons in which he posted a double-digit homerun output.
Cardenas made his debut with the Reds as a 21-year-old in 1960. The Reds at the time had the slick-fielding Roy McMillan at short but they dealt Roy after the season and let Chico platoon with veteran Eddie Kasko in 1961. The system worked as the Reds won the pennant but they fell to the Mantle/Maris led Yankees in the World Series. Given that Cardenas was a .300 hitter in 1961, and Kasko wasn’t, the Reds named Chico their everyday shortstop in 1962.
Cardenas hit .294 his first year as a regular player and swatted ten homeruns. Although his batting average began to head south from there on, Leo was such a dynamite defender that he earned the nickname Mr. Automatic. In 1964, his first All-Star season, Chico led shortstops in putouts–something he’d do on four separate occasions. But his bat began to heat up again in 1965 when he posted double-digit totals in every extra base hit department. He won a Gold Glove that year while pacing the league in intentional walks.
Although Chico’s batting average dropped 32 points from 1965 to 1966, his power spiked. He swatted a career high 20 homeruns in ’66 while also establishing a personal best in RBI. With the newfound power, Chico’s defense didn’t suffer. The Cuban led shortstops in both fielding percentage and putouts. But his production wasn’t a sign of things to come. He was limited to 108 games in 1967 and when he was healthy again in ’68 his batting average reached an all-time low of .235.
After a down year in ’68 the Reds traded Chico to the Twins for Jim Merritt. The trade was a blessing for Cardenas who would make two postseason appearances with Minnesota. The change in leagues led to Leo’s bat coming back around as he hit .280 for the pennant winning Twins. But Minnesota was bumped off in the ALCS by the Orioles and they suffered an identical fate in 1970 when Baltimore again made short work of them in October.
Chico made his final All-Star squad in 1971 when he banged out 18 homeruns for the Twins. Still stellar on the field, Cardenas led shortstops with a .985 fielding percentage. The Twins made an astute move by dealing Chico to the Angels after the season for fireman Dave LaRoche. In California, Chico’s career stalled out. He only hit .223 for the Angels in 1972 and lost his everyday assignment. He ended his career in 1975 as a reserve with the Texas Rangers.
G 1,941/R 662/H 1,725/2B 285/3B 49/HR 118/RBI 689/SB 39/BB 522/SO 1,135/BA .257/OBP .311/SA .367