The Pittsburgh Pirates started off the 2010 season with question marks at their corner outfield spots. Lastings Milledge started the season in left field, while Garrett Jones started the season in right field. Jose Tabata eventually got the call from AAA, moving Milledge to right field, and Jones to first base.
It wasn’t a surprise that Tabata took over in left field. At the start of the 2010 season, Tabata was the number two prospect in the farm system, and it was pretty much known that he would arrive by mid-season. That path was cemented when Tabata hit for a .308/.373/.424 line in 224 at-bats in AAA before his June call-up.
Tabata had an impressive rookie season, hitting for a .299/.346/.400 line in 405 at-bats, hitting from the top of the lineup. The most impressive thing was Tabata’s second half. Tabata started with a .241/.323/.328 line in 116 at-bats in the first half of the season. In the second half he hit for a .322/.356/.429 line in 289 at-bats. Tabata had a 14 game hitting streak at the end of the season, snapping the streak with two games to go.
The Pirates acquired Tabata in July 2008 from the New York Yankees. Tabata entered the 2008 season as one of the top prospects in the Yankees’ system, but fell out of favor due to attitude problems and poor performance. The attitude problems seemed centered around one moment in which Tabata left a game early, frustrated with his poor performance. To date, there have been no reports of attitude issues with Tabata since coming to the Pirates.
Tabata quickly turned his season around, with a .348/.402/.562 line in 89 at-bats in Altoona after the trade in 2008. In 2009 he posted a .303/.370/.404 line in Altoona, along with a .276/.333/.410 line in 134 at-bats in AAA. He followed that up with a strong half season in AAA, and an impressive debut in the majors.
There are two knocks against Tabata. The first knock is speculation over his age. Tabata just turned 22 in August, although some doubt his age is correct, due to his body frame. I don’t like to speculate on age, as it usually is a guilty until actually proven guilty situation anytime the talk comes up. I take an innocent until proven guilty approach, which is why you won’t see me hesitate to refer to Tabata as 21-22 this season.
The other knock is Tabata’s lack of power. Power is usually the last thing to arrive for hitters, so Tabata’s .400 slugging percentage isn’t horrible at the age of 21-22. Tabata could still add some power. Coming up he drew comparisons to Manny Ramirez, but those comparisons seem to be out the window. Tabata doesn’t have much room on his frame to grow, so 15-20 homers seems like the max at this point.
That wouldn’t be a horrible thing, as long as Tabata continues hitting for average, and getting on base at a good rate. Tabata can be a great top of the order hitter if he continues his 2010 major league success. The Pirates don’t need him as a middle of the order hitter, as they have Pedro Alvarez, and very possibly have Anthony Rendon in their future. Neil Walker also looks more likely to be the number three hitter the Pirates need, which allows Tabata to stay at the top of the order.
Tabata is under team control through the 2016 season, and like Andrew McCutchen, it would be nice to see the Pirates eventually extend him, although that’s not something that needs to happen right away. The Pirates have McCutchen and Tabata under control together for at least the next five seasons, which means they have two-thirds of their outfield, and the top two spots in the batting order locked up for those seasons.
Going forward, Tabata could lose some speed due to his frame, forcing a move out of the spacious left field at PNC Park. The Pirates have a speedy outfield prospect in Starling Marte who could replace Tabata in left field, possibly as early as June 2012. Tabata has a strong arm, so the possible move to right field would work well for the Pirates.