The St. Louis Cardinals gave outfielder So Taguchi his unconditional release on Wednesday evening, reducing the number of players on their Major League roster to 39.
The Cardinals had earlier declined their option on Taguchi’s services for the 2008 season, but did not release him at that time. With the non-tender date one week from today, on December 12, the club instead decided to release the popular outfielder now. This move gives them a roster spot to potentially select another player during Thursday's Rule 5 Draft. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports the player’s agent, Alan Nero, requested the player’s release earlier this week.
With eight other outfielders on their roster, there was no longer room for the 38-year-old right-handed hitter. Defensively, Skip Schumaker is comparable in his ability to play all three positions and no longer has minor league options. The younger, cheaper Schumaker may claim Taguchi’s spot on the 25-man active roster in 2008.
Yet, with Juan Encarnacion’s baseball future perhaps over, the Cardinals’ projected outfield contingent is strongly left-handed in batting. That group includes starters Chris Duncan, Jim Edmonds and Rick Ankiel as well as Schumaker.
Among the top five flychasers on the Cardinals, only Ryan Ludwick is a right-handed batter. Joe Mather is the only other righty outfielder on the 40-man currently, but is not considered major league-ready, highlighting an area that will need to be addressed before the season.
Taguchi was originally signed by the Cardinals to a three-year contract as a free agent in January, 2002, the first native Japanese-born player to ever appear with the Cardinals. In Japan, he had been a teammate of Seattle Mariners’ outfielder Ichiro Suzuki with the Orix Blue Wave, where he earned five Gold Glove Awards in ten seasons.
Taguchi’s early time with the Cardinals was disappointing. Appearing overmatched at the plate, he spent most of the 2002 season in Triple-A and then Double-A. That fall, Taguchi had his first taste of success in the USA, batting .301 in the Arizona Fall League and being named to the AFL All-Prospect Team.
In 2003, So began and spent most of the season at Triple-A Memphis, where he batted .256 with two home runs, 24 RBIs and 14 stolen bases in 90 games along with two short stints with the Major League club.
The next season, he was named the Cardinals Rookie of the Year after batting .302 (39-for-129) in his 36 outfield starts. Taguchi went 1-for-6 in six postseason games in 2004, getting the start in Game 1 of the World Series in left field in Boston.
By 2005, Taguchi received a career-high 396 at-bats and delivered his bests in home runs, eight, and RBIs with 53, batting .288 and contributing solid defense at all three outfield positions. He earned the reputation as a clutch player, with his .407 batting average with runners in scoring position best on the Cardinals and ranked among the top ten in the National League. He appeared in all three outfield positions during the postseason, going 0-for-7.
Among Taguchi’s highlights in 2006 was a team-leading 11 stolen bases in 14 attempts. His at-bats dropped to 316, though he appeared in 134 games, often as a late-game defensive replacement. Taguchi’s offensive productivity dropped considerably, contributing 25 RBI and a .266 average. Yet, the quiet outfielder was an important post-season contributor for the World Champions, going combined 6-for-15 (.400) with four RBI and two home runs, the latter equaling his regular season count.
Taguchi came back in 2007 and again made the club. His games played and at-bats dropped for the second consecutive season and his defense seemed to fall below its previous high level. Though the Cardinals had an option on his services for the 2008 season at a salary of $1.1 million, they declined that last month.
Overall, Taguchi posted a .283/.336/.391 line (BA/OBP/SLG) in 1267 at-bats over parts of six Major League seasons.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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