A few days after the lockout began in December 2021, Mike Tauchman weighed the direction of his baseball career.
He received an offer to play overseas and without having any concrete options at that point from a big-league team, Tauchman evaluated the opportunity to go to the Korea Baseball Organization for the 2022 season. He realized, though, it really wasn’t that hard of a decision to leave.
But when Tauchman signed with the Hanwha Eagles, it came with the understanding he might not play in Major League Baseball again.
“That was something I was OK with,” Tauchman told the Tribune on Saturday.
Tauchman’s time in the KBO ultimately led the 32-year-old outfielder to the Chicago Cubs, and he has become an important piece on a surging team. The Palatine native’s journey back the the big leagues might not have come to fruition without Tauchman’s year in South Korea. It came on the heels of a difficult 2021 season that began with a trade from the New York Yankees to the San Francisco Giants one month in and ended with a 56 OPS+ over 75 games.
His season in Korea provided a positive experience and “a new world” for Tauchman and his wife, Eileen. Most importantly, on the baseball side, playing in the KBO gave him a needed reset even as he navigated the inherent challenges that come with the language barrier.
“There were some things from the mental side that I was struggling with over here, just in terms of confidence and reliance and different things like that,” Tauchman said. “And over there, you’re kind of on your own, to an extent, and you’re also expected to play every single day, so that was something that I looked forward to. A year of you’ve just got to figure it out on your own, you’ve got to manage things on your own and the only person you truly, truly rely on is yourself. But that was good for me.”
When the Cubs presented a chance to come back to the U.S. through a minor-league contract with a big-league camp invite he signed in January, Tauchman didn’t go into this season with high expectations that it would lead him back to the majors. The draw of playing close to family, even if he was at Triple-A Iowa, made the Cubs’ offer appealing regardless.
“Unfortunately, the reality is that, at times, results aren’t the only determining factor on how things work at this level,” Tauchman said. “There’s obviously a business component and other components, so to get the opportunity, I was just extremely grateful for it and just try to enjoy it. That mental reset helped in that way.
“I definitely feel more relaxed than 2020-21, which were challenging years with the pandemic stuff, getting traded in early in the season and really struggling and feeling just not myself.”
Cody Bellinger’s knee injury sustained in mid May and subsequent time on the injured list opened the door for Tauchman, who got off to a great start in his first month at Triple A to earn the promotion. Since then, Tauchman has become a stabilizing option when hitting leadoff — .276/.351/.474 slash line in 27 starts in that spot — and given manager David Ross more defensive flexibility with how he builds the Cubs’ daily lineup.
“At points in my career, I would put greater importance on every single at-bat than maybe there needed to be and it’s something you might do as a young player because you want to maximize every opportunity you have and you feel like if you don’t, nobody’s going to think you’re any good,” Tauchman said. “But maybe with the passage of time or getting older or just different experiences, it’s, like, you’ve had thousands of at-bats in your life and some go well, some don’t, and it has no bearing on the next one.
“That’s something that I’ve tried to keep perspective on this year because hitting in the big leagues is really hard. It’s really hard. And some days pitchers just out execute you and there’s little you can do about it. So I’m just trying to keep perspective that way.”
Tauchman’s game-ending home run robbery Friday night to beat the St. Louis Cardinals sealed the Cubs’ biggest win of the season. Within the clubhouse, the way Tauchman has made the most of his major-league return has not gone unnoticed even before his outstanding play.
“I have a lot of belief in guys like that that just keep going,” second baseman Nico Hoerner said. “He’s going to embrace whatever role he has and he’s got a really big one for us.”