So Taguchi - Last Man Standing

So Taguchi - Last Man Standing

Only one Cardinals player in camp is without a contract for 2006.

With Yadier Molina and John Rodriguez agreeing to one-year contracts this past week, outfielder So Taguchi is the only Cardinals player currently in camp who has not come to terms on a 2006 deal.

No reason to worry, however. Despite entering his fourth season of play in America, Taguchi has accumulated less than three years of major league service time. As a result, So has almost no leverage in his contract discussions with the Cardinals. Either he accepts their offer of a one-year deal, or he doesn't play in the US.

A current story by Joe Strauss in the Post-Dispatch makes it clear that Taguchi would rather be no place else and is not worried about the money.

From their side, the only rule the Cardinals have to follow is to avoid lowering his 2005 salary by more than 20%. That should not be a problem, as Taguchi earned his $550,000 salary last season, logging 396 at-bats for the NL Central Champions. In his story, Strauss noted that So also cashed in $250,000 in bonuses in 2005.

If Taguchi's agent and the Cardinals cannot come to terms, the team is obligated to renew his contract no later than March 11.

Taguchi has consistently earned the praises of his manager and teammates because of his solid fundamental play, including good breaks taken in the outfield, accurate throws made and good quickness shown. In fact, prior to the start of this Spring Training, manager Tony La Russa gave So a "slight" lead in the battle for the starting job in left field.

On the other hand, some look at numbers such as Taguchi's meager .734 OPS (on base plus slugging percentage) last season and draw the conclusion that Taguchi is better suited to be a reserve than a starter.

Putting that .734 OPS into perspective, of the 32 National League outfielders who had as many at-bats as Taguchi last season, only three had a lower OPS – Juan Pierre, Willy Taveras and Corey Patterson. And those three are known as speed guys – stolen base threats that Taguchi is not.

Others look at Taguchi's lefty/righty splits and see him as a possible platoon partner with left-handed hitters Larry Bigbie or John Rodriguez. Certainly, So's .745 OPS versus righties was better than his .717 mark against lefties, but simply put, neither is starter-quality for a major league corner outfielder.

Interestingly enough, La Russa's positive comments about Taguchi could be used against the team in the current contract negotiations. After all, Bigbie, who in La Russa's estimation has started behind Taguchi in the left-field derby, settled weeks ago for $900,000. Like Taguchi, Bigbie is also not yet arbitration-eligible. If I was representing Taguchi, I would certainly ask for more than Bigbie.

But, this will be settled soon one way or another and there is no doubt that the 36-year-old will be playing for the Cardinals this coming season.

Here is a look back at some of Taguchi's financial dealings and movements since his original signing with the Cardinals. It serves as a vivid reminder how far Taguchi has traveled to even be considered a virtual lock to make the 2006 25-man big league roster, let alone in competition for a starting role.

January, 2002
A virtual unknown in America, Taguchi signed a three-year contract with the Cardinals for about $3 million. Many remember that, but not the inclusion of performance bonuses that could have earned Taguchi an additional $1 million each of those three seasons. Obviously, he did not achieve them, spending much of those ensuing years in the minors.

In Japan, Taguchi had been a career .277 hitter with 67 home runs and 404 RBI in 10 seasons with the Orix Blue Wave. He was considered one of the best-fielding outfielders in Japan and evidenced by him being awarded five Gold Glove Awards there.

Perhaps the Cardinals were hoping to get a player comparable to Taguchi's former teammate Ichiro Suzuki, but that wasn't to be.

March, 2002
Taguchi was optioned to Triple-A Memphis by the Cardinals after struggling during spring training, where he hit just .149 in 21 exhibition games.

June, 2002
Taguchi made his major league debut on June 11 after being recalled from Memphis. It lasted only six days. After getting one start and accumulating an 0-for-4 batting mark, the return of Jim Edmonds from injury sent So back down.

August, 2002
The Cardinals dropped Taguchi down to Double-A New Haven after he hit just .247 in 304 at-bats with Memphis.

September, 2002
Taguchi recorded the first hit of his major league career against the Cubs on his initial day back up after having been promoted from New Haven. He went 6-for-11 the rest of the way in spot duty.

October, 2002
Taguchi had a nice showing in the Arizona Fall League, hitting .301 against pitchers at least ten years younger than him. He was named to the league's All-Prospect Team.

March, 2003
Kerry Robinson beat Taguchi out for a roster spot coming out of Spring Training, despite Taguchi outhitting K-Rob .298 to .239. Taguchi spent most of the season in Memphis, where he batted .256 in 258 at-bats. He accrued only about two weeks of big-league time during two stints that season.

March, 2004
Taguchi finally made the team coming out of Spring Training on the heels of a .353 batting mark and continued solid defensive play. But, he was optioned out to Memphis twice during the season. Both times back, Taguchi was a positive addition to the team. The first time, he replaced Cody McKay and the other time, Jason Simontacchi was the player heading out.

September, 2004
Taguchi was named the Cardinals Rookie of the Year, after hitting .291 in 179 at-bats.

December, 2004
Even though he was not arbitration-eligible, the Cardinals wanted to re-sign Taguchi but pay him less than the allowable 20% salary reduction. As a result, Taguchi was non-tendered by the Cardinals, making him a free agent.

Taguchi's release caused headlines in Japan, where perception is extremely important. Taguchi was quoted in the press as saying that the non-tender was misunderstood and that he would be returning to the Cardinals. This occurred despite reports that Taguchi had received better offers to come back home to play in Japan, including the opportunity to again be a starter.

Just three days later, the free agent did re-sign with the Cardinals. The $550,000 deal with incentives was substantially less lucrative than his previous $1 million-plus per season contract.

2005
Taguchi spent the entire 2005 season with the big club, hitting .288 with 53 RBI and becoming an important member of that 100-win squad.

Taguchi was superb in the clutch, hitting .407 with a .936 OPS in 91 at-bats with runners in scoring position. On the other hand, with the bases empty, he hit just .258 and his OPS was a paltry .692 over those 236 at-bats.

Technically, Taguchi has a fourth option year remaining. But, at this point, it would be major surprise if it is ever used. Taguchi looks to be here to stay. The only real question is in what role.

Here's hoping it is as a valuable fourth outfielder, serving as a defensive specialist and receiving 200-250 important at-bats in the process.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

© 2006 stlcardinals.scout.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten or redistributed.

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