Fourth Outfielder Revisited

Brian Walton believes a fourth starter-quality outfielder is needed even more now. He just doesn't believe that is So Taguchi or Roger Cedeno.

My Birdhouse colleague Joe Mammy asked me this: "I remember in the pre-season you did a piece on a 4th "regular" outfielder—which I agreed with. While it would be nice to have another right-handed power bat off the bench, do you think So Taguchi (given his offensive consistency this season and his regular playing time…) could fill that 4th slot or do you think we still have a hole to fill there?"

In the opening words immortalized by Hungo, "Absolutely!" There remains a huge hole that needs to be filled.

Yes, So Taguchi has done a credible job this season, hitting .265 as a back-up outfielder. But, realize that a back-up outfielder is not the same thing as a fourth starter, who I projected might need to get as many as 120 starts based on the age and fragility of the three regular starters.

Remember, there is no more diligent studier of match-ups than Tony La Russa. He constantly preaches his role is to put players into situations where they are most likely to succeed. That is precisely what he is doing with So.

To date, Taguchi has entered 13 games while they were underway, and has nine starts. Therefore, with 34 of the 162 regular-season games played, So is on pace to receive 43 starts – a far cry from my forecast of 120 for the fourth outfielder.

If So would be asked to answer the bell 120 times, his offensive weaknesses would be exploited and we'd surely see more of the early-US career So, not the more productive one we're seeing today, whose use has been spotted effectively.

Taguchi's strongest asset is his defense and therefore, he needs to remain available as a late-inning defensive replacement is needed. As a result, he has pinch-hit just four times this season.

If you note, Roger Cedeno has consistently been the first pinch-hitter called upon. Of course, his results have been hideous (2-for-17 as a pinch-hitter), but that is a different story. I would think that Cedeno would have been the first to get extended playing time if it were to become available, except for the fact that in 2005, Cedeno has played like someone who needs to be released.

It's time to jettison Cedeno and get a reliable fourth outfielder with some pop who could start for a period of time without a huge drop-off. That would enable Taguchi to continue in the role in which he has thrived. The only problem is that it remains too early in the season for any team to trade a guy like Steve Finley, who moved from the Diamondbacks to the Dodgers last July.

Still, odds remain that Walker, Sanders and Edmonds will miss enough time this season such that fourth outfielder will be needed. Let's just hope it isn't soon, now that John Mabry will be needed to hold down third base while Scott Rolen is on the disabled list.

As a result, an already-weak bench got weaker as Mabry was replaced by Scott Seabol. I believe more than ever that a fourth regular outfielder is going to be required sooner, rather than later.

And, that is a 2005 statement only. Looking ahead only reinforces the urgency to take action. When you realize that Jim Edmonds is the only Cardinals outfielder under contract for next season, you have to think that adding someone who is assured of being productive for a few years into the future would become a more-pressing priority for Walt Jocketty.

Reggie Sanders is 37 years old and while he hasn't yet shown significant signs of tailing off, he'll likely be looking for a multi-year deal to end his career. The Cardinals may not want to take the risk, and I can appreciate that. Although Sanders has never played an inning of his 13-plus seasons with an American League team, I think he'd be better served to finish his playing days where he can be a designated hitter at times.

Larry Walker is older, at 38, and is even more brittle physically at this point in his career. He's already made rumblings about retirement, but even if he decides to come back in 2006, Walker will need to play a diminished role, commensurate with his fall-off in productivity. Whether or not his pride would allow him to DH in the Junior Circuit, it would certainly prolong an already-excellent career. He might also be able to play some first base, just not in St. Louis.

Don't get me wrong. I like So Taguchi. He works harder than most to get the maximum from his abilities. Here's an example. At home, the Cardinals video room is off-limits, but on the road, the conditions are more cramped and therefore, more open. While in Atlanta, I watched So studying video for several hours while many of his teammates lounged around watching a movie. Perhaps Taguchi had no interest in "Meet the Fockers", but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and say he serious about his work.

In closing, So's a good back-up, but just not a starter. And, six weeks away from his 36th birthday, that isn't going to change. But, the Cardinals are going to need someone, perhaps soon.

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


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