Although Andrew McCutchen debuted in 2009, the following season was the true first go-around for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ current core group. With McCutchen settling into his second season, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata all held regular starting spots by July 2010.
McCutchen has developed into a yearly MVP contender, while Walker and Alvarez have battled through some bumps to become key cogs in the Bucco machine. Tabata, however, had become almost an afterthought by the start of 2013.
Injuries played a major role in the marginalization of the 24-year-old outfielder. Tabata has never played more than 103 major-league games in a season, and his health problems reached a nadir in 2012. His OPS dropped to a career-low .664, placing him well below average among MLB right fielders.
Moreover, a persistent hamstring strain robbed him of much of his speed, which hurt him in the field and on the basepaths. Even when he did play last year, Tabata was tentative, frustrating Pirates manager Clint Hurdle and others in the front office.
This year, Travis Snider was paired as the lefthanded side of a right field platoon with the righty-swinging Tabata, but Snider’s struggles at the plate (.609 OPS, 74 OPS+) pushed Garrett Jones into the spot more often than the Pirates would like. Meanwhile, Tabata suffered minor injuries to his hamstring and oblique that kept him from getting a long string of starts.
A forearm bruise in mid-July limited him further, but it finally seems as if Tabata will get a longer look in right. The Pirates didn’t add anyone through trades prior to last week’s deadline, although waiver trades are still possible through the end of August.
Giving Tabata a longer leash may be the right move, as the man from El Tigre, Venezuela, has played like an animal lately. Tabata started five of the Pirates’ seven games last week, collecting six hits and four walks in the process. His 3-for-4 performance in Saturday’s win over Colorado featured a triple and an opposite-field home run.
Tabata has a triple-slash line of .265/.339/.401 (AVG/OBP/SLG) in 64 games, matching up favorably with his career rates. If maintained, his slugging percentage would be his best in four seasons. These numbers aren’t stunning, but they put him 10 percent above average for NL right fielders, which is a massive improvement over the Pirates’ production at that position so far this season.
Tabata also has a slight reverse platoon split in his career, making him a viable option to start against pitchers of either handedness. We’ll see where he stands in the Pirates’ eyes this week, as the Marlins and Rockies will throw five righty starters against the Bucs over the next six games.
This isn’t to advocate for Tabata to get 80 to 90 percent of the right field starts the rest of the season, since Alex Presley has had good success in limited at-bats since a recent call-up. Perhaps a 70-30 split would be more appropriate, unless Presley falls off and/or Tabata catches fire.
If they desire, the Pirates could have Tabata under contract for the next six years; the next three seasons are guaranteed at an average annual rate of just under $4 million. That’s quite the club-friendly salary if Tabata can stay healthy and churn out a decent amount of offense.
Maybe 2013 will be the year he rewards the Pirates for signing him long-term.