Ozzie guillen and Tadahito Iguchi might seem like an odd pair, but as it turns out, they should get along just fine. On the morning in spring training that Guillen, the exuberant Venezuelan manager of the White Sox, first met Iguchi, a quiet second baseman who had just arrived from Japan, he welcomed the 30-year-old major league rookie by asking, "You speak any English?"
"No," replied Iguchi.
"Me neither," Guillen said with a big laugh.
Guillen believes that Iguchi, a four-time all-star with the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks who signed a two-year, $4.95 million contract with the White Sox in January, is a good fit on a team that will emphasize small ball. (Chicago led the American League with 58 sacrifice bunts last season.) "Iguchi is fundamentally sound, a smart base runner, very solid at all the little things that will help us score runs more consistently," says Guillen, who has penciled in Iguchi as the number 2 hitter in the order. "[He's] the kind of player I've wanted on this team."
Iguchi is also enamored of his new skipper. "In Japan the managers are very strict and serious," he said through a translator last Saturday. "Ozzie is different. He's like a friend. It's exciting and fun to play for him, and he makes me relax."
The 5'10", 185-pound Iguchi was Japan's premier second baseman (three Gold Gloves) and last season hit .333 with 24 homers. Though not exceptionally fast, Iguchi is an adept base runner and was a two-time stolen base champ in Japan.
Despite his stellar credentials, the White Sox were Iguchi's only serious suitors after the Hawks released him at his behest in November. The lukewarm interest in Iguchi might be attributed to the disappointing performance of last year's star Japanese import, Kazuo Matsui, who signed a three-year, $20.1 million deal with the Mets in December 2003. Matsui was an ineffective leadoff hitter (.234 from that spot) and struggled at shortstop, where he committed 23 errors.
"The final frontier for Japanese baseball players is to prove themselves at a middle-infield position," says Hideki Okuda, a U.S.-based reporter for the Japanese publication Sports Nippon. "No one from Japan has come to the U.S. and been successful playing in the infield, so Iguchi has a lot to prove both for himself and for Japanese players."
Iguchi, who says that the success of Japanese outfielders Ichiro Suzuki of the Mariners and Hideki Matsui of the Yankees fueled his interest in jumping to the U.S., has set lofty goals for himself. He aspires to hit .300 and steal 40 to 50 bases. "There's a huge amount of pressure on him," says White Sox general manager Ken Williams, who has been impressed with Iguchi's ability to drive the ball to all fields and his steady glove. "He needs to stay within himself and not try to replicate his numbers from Japan. If he stays relaxed, he'll be great."
Says Iguchi, who through Sunday was hitting .272 this spring, "I'm getting more comfortable. Each day has been a challenge, and that's why I came here: to prove myself at the highest level."
In addition to Tadahito Iguchi of the White Sox, here are five other rookies who are expected to bolster their teams this season.
Scott Kazmir, LHP, Devil Rays Acquired in a trade with the Mets last July, the 21-year-old flamethrower (above) who also has a blistering slider, will be Tampa Bay's No. 3 starter.
Dallas McPherson, 3B, Angels Though he has been sidelined with a back injury, the 24-year-old infielder hit 40 homers in the minors last season and is expected to be a regular by May.
Jeremy Reed, CF, Mariners A gifted contact hitter (.397 batting average in 58 big league at bats last year) with speed, Reed, 23, will start and bat second.
Huston Street, RHP, A's Oakland's first-round draft pick last June, the 21-year-old closer of the future will be a top setup man this season for Octavio Dotel.
Willy Taveras, CF, Astros This speedster, 23, swiped at least 50 bases in each of his last three minor league seasons and could become the full-time replacement for Carlos Beltran.