ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals have been known to have a strong farm system, and they’ve insisted that their intention to contend every year rests on their ability to identify and develop players. That identification process has expanded globally over the years, from the Dominican Republic to Asia.
MLB Pipeline recently released its annual Top 30 International Prospects list for players eligible to sign in the 2020-21 signing period. These young players are the game’s international stars of tomorrow, and they are following in the footsteps of thousands of international players who laid the groundwork before them. These are the Cardinals’ top five international signings of all time, ranked by career Wins Above Replacement -- not just the WAR they accumulated in St. Louis:
1) Jose Cruz, Puerto Rico
Cruz is known for his time in an Astros uniform, when the left fielder hit .292 over 13 years in Houston. But the Cardinals signed him out of Puerto Rico in 1966, and he hit .247 in five years with St. Louis to kickstart his career.
In 1973, he found himself in an all-Cruz outfield for all nine innings of a Spring Training game against the Mets. The Cardinals had signed Cruz’s brothers, Tommy and Hector, in '69 and ’70, respectively, and manager Red Schoendienst even batted them 1-2-3 in the lineup. Tommy played right field and led off, Hector played left field and batted second, and Jose played center and hit third.
“I've used two of them in a “B” game,” Schoendienst told the New York Times. “But I've been wanting to get them into a regular game as a unit. It just hadn't been done. Besides, they're good ballplayers. I guess I batted them at the top for the effect. If they have six older brothers back home and, if they come to town, I'll play them, too.”
The left-handed-hitting Cruz was traded to the Astros for cash in 1974, and that's where he became a two-time All-Star and two-time Silver Slugger Award winner and sparked Houston’s offense for years to come. His No. 25 was retired by the Astros in '92. When he retired, he was among the franchise's all-time leaders in every significant offensive category, including games, at-bats, runs, hits, doubles, triples, RBIs and extra-base hits.
2) Stan Javier, Dominican Republic
Javier never played in St. Louis, but he was discovered and signed by the organization in 1981 before being traded to the Yankees a year later. The outfielder had a career .269 average and accumulated 25.4 WAR over a 17-year career with the A’s (seven years), Giants (four years), Dodgers (three years), Mariners (two years), and one year each with the Phillies, Angels, Yankees and Astros.
Aside from originally signing with the Cardinals, Javier has one more connection with St. Louis: His dad, Julian Javier, played more games at second base (1,547) than any other player in franchise history, and the two-time All-Star hit .258/.297/.356 in 12 seasons in St. Louis. Julian was signed by the Pirates in 1956.
3) Carlos Martínez, Dominican Republic
Ten years ago, the Cardinals signed Martínez out of the Dominican Republic for a $1.5 million bonus, a move that paid dividends for both player and team. The deal came a year after an agreement Martínez had with the Red Sox fell through because of questions over his name and birthday. Once that contract was void, the Cardinals conducted their own investigation and pleaded their case.
Now, Martínez has established himself as a key part of the Cardinals’ pitching staff.
A two-time All-Star, Martínez broke out as a starter in 2015, the first season of a three-year, 580-inning stretch in which he posted a 3.24 ERA and a .609 winning percentage. He spent the majority of the previous two seasons as a reliever, and most of last season as the Cardinals’ closer, when he notched 24 saves. He was on track this year to return to the rotation.
4) So Taguchi, Japan
When he signed with the Cardinals in 2002, Taguchi became the third Japanese position player to sign with a Major League club -- and the first Asian-born player to sign with the Cardinals.
The results weren’t immediately favorable, though. Signed to potentially be the starting left fielder in 2002, Taguchi struggled at the plate in Spring Training and was sent to Triple-A Memphis to begin the season. He was called up in June to make his big league debut, but he was sent down again and then dropped to Double-A in August. He fought his way back and was called up in September, when he hit .400 (6-for-15) in 19 games.
Taguchi spent eight years in the Majors, and six of them were with the Cardinals. From 2002-07, Taguchi was a fourth outfielder, but he got more than 300 at-bats in three different seasons. In '04, he was a starter for the Cardinals in the World Series, and he made key contributions to the Cardinals’ championship run in '06, like when he smacked a memorable, ninth-inning homer off Mets closer Billy Wagner in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series.
Taguchi hit .283/.336/.391 for St. Louis with 19 home runs a .727 OPS, developing into a productive hitter who contributed to a successful era for the Cardinals. He became a favorite for his manager, Tony La Russa, his teammates and the city, and he hasn’t lost touch with St. Louis, returning to what he calls his second home in the offseason.
5) Fernando Salas, Mexico
Salas first pitched professionally for the Saltillo Saraperos of the Mexican League, and a number of teams took interest in the right-hander after watching him pitch in the 2006 Mexican League playoffs. The Cardinals bought Salas’ contract from Saltillo in '07, and he made his debut in '10.
When Ryan Franklin lost the closer’s job in 2011, Salas was not the first choice. But he was lauded for his steady pulse and took over the closing job in May. By the All-Star break, he had 16 saves. Salas rescued the ninth for the Cardinals before yielding to Jason Motte for the postseason push for the World Series champions. Salas had a 2.28 ERA with 24 saves and a 2.4 WAR that year.
Salas spent two more years with St. Louis, and in total, he pitched 192 1/3 innings with a 3.42 ERA in four years with the Cardinals.
Oscar Taveras was a rising talent and was considered one of the top hitting prospects in the game before his tragic death in 2014, just two weeks after his rookie season had ended with the Cardinals. St. Louis signed Taveras out of the Dominican Republic in '08 to a $145,000 bonus. Within a few years, Cardinals officials called him the finest hitting prospect the organization had since Albert Pujols, the three-time NL MVP.
Anne Rogers covers the Cardinals for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @anne__rogers and on Facebook.