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Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2010

SPORTS SCOPE

Buffaloes take big gamble by giving up on veteran slugger Rhodes


The Orix Buffaloes' decision to reel in So Taguchi instead of working things out with Tuffy Rhodes will either go down as cheap or shrewd.

Jason Coskrey

The Buffaloes signed former major leaguer Taguchi to a one-year deal worth an estimated ¥80 million on Saturday, all but ending Rhodes' tenure with the team.

Rather than making an expensive offer to try and bring Rhodes back, the Buffaloes went rummaging through the bargain bin and unearthed a tasty gem in Taguchi.

The two-time World Series champion returns to Japan after eight seasons in the major leagues to once again play under the Orix banner. Taguchi was a member of the Orix BlueWave but left Japan in 2002, prior to the team's 2004 merger with the Kintetsu Buffaloes that created the current franchise.

He'll likely come back to a hero's welcome, pull his weight at the ticket booth — at least until the novelty wears thin — and supply the young team with a wealth of experience.

News photo
At what cost?: Outfielder So Taguchi's return to Japan with Orix has likely signaled the end of slugger Tuffy Rhodes' tenure with the Buffaloes. KYODO PHOTO

If it works out and Taguchi helps lead the Buffaloes out of the Pacific League cellar, then it'll be hard to argue the value of the move.

After all, it was only a year ago that the Chunichi Dragons were in a similar predicament.

Prior to the 2009 season, the Dragons decided against paying top dollar for home run machine Tyrone Woods and opted for a far cheaper option in Tony Blanco.

Their fiscal sense was rewarded as Blanco proceeded to run roughshod in his debut season, hitting 39 homers and driving in 110 runs.

But it's hard to imagine Taguchi matching Rhodes' contributions at the plate.

A broken right hand limited Rhodes to a career-low (in Japan) 84 games last season, though he still managed to hit .308 with a team-high 22 home runs — homering every 13.4 at-bats — and 62 RBIs.

After it looked like his career was over following a injury-hit 2005 season with the Yomiuri Giants, Rhodes had the last laugh with the Buffaloes.

He hit 104 homers and drove in 276 runs in 358 games with the Buffaloes and was showing few signs of slowing down at the plate.

Meanwhile Taguchi hit .274 with three homers and 39 RBIs in 409 at-bats in the majors since 2007.

Orix will be hoping the gains of not being burdened by Rhodes' big contract will outweigh the loss of not having his bat.

At 41 years old, Rhodes' price tag may have been too much for the team to swallow.

The slugger was Orix's highest paid player last season, carrying a contract that called on him to earn an estimated ¥320 million.

That made him the only Orix player in the last five years to earn more than ¥300 million in a season.

So the Buffaloes likely save a pretty penny by bringing in Taguchi and will hope Alex Cabrera and Greg LaRocca stay healthy, the lineup grows up around them, and the starting rotation lowers last year's 4.58 team ERA.

It's hard to fault the team for being thrifty as money doesn't always guarantee championships.

Beginning with the 2005 season, the Yomiuri Giants have had estimated payrolls of over ¥47 billion, ¥39 billion, ¥40 billion, ¥53 billion and ¥45 billion, with just one Japan Series title (2009) to show for it.

Whereas the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters won the 2006 title with a estimated ¥22 billion payroll while the 2008 Seibu Lions came in at ¥21 billion.

Orix's payroll was reportedly ¥23 billion in each of the past two seasons. They'll enter 2010 with a estimated payroll of just over ¥19 billion, the second lowest in Japanese baseball.

It's no secret that the price of winning can be high. But sometimes the lows that come with spending too little can be an even greater cost to bear.



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