Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Tabata Tale

While we were reading the news about Pedro cracking the ball into the Florida stratosphere, a quote about a different hotshot caught our eye:

"You should watch Tabata hit. Jose Tabata is kind of going under the radar here, but this kid has a special bat as well," John Russell told the scribes gathered around the batting cage yesterday.

Jose Tabata was born August 12, 1988 in Anzoategui, Venezuela, and is a 20-year old OF'er who's probably going to start the year in Altoona. He signed with the Yankees in 2004, and promptly starting playing in the Dominican Summer League at 16.

In his first year of pro ball, Tabata led the entire Yankees farm system in batting average when he hit .314 for the Gulf Coast Yankees in 2005. He added 3 homers, 25 RBI, and 22 stolen bases.

In 2006, he batted .298 for the Low Class A Charleston RiverDogs. Tabata had 5 HRs, 56 RBI, and the young outfielder looked like he had smooth sailing ahead on his journey to the bigs. But he would soon encounter some rough seas.

The Buc fans got their first look at him when he was selected to participate in the Futures Game as a member of the World Team. The event was part of the festivities for the 2006 All-Star Game at PNC Park, and Tabata played center field while going 1-for-3 with a single off fellow Yankees prospect Phil Hughes.

Ah, but that first squall was about to pop up. He was hit on the right wrist in 2006, cutting short his season. The injury bothered him throughout 2007, and he finally had the hamate bone removed in August.

He was still having problems with it in early 2008; it's not unusual to have lingering effects from the surgery for months afterwards. Pedro Alvarez had the same operation. Can't anyone get to Pittsburgh with all their body parts intact?

In 2007, he played for the Class A Tampa Yankees. Besides the bum hand, he hurt his cause by reporting to camp overweight and out of shape. Tabata hit .307, but his slugging percentage dropped under .400 for the first time in his pro career.

Still, he got back into condition, and continued his steady climb, reporting to the Class AA Trenton Thunder in 2008. It would be quite a season for the Venezuelan teen. First, he was a star of a couple of soap opera prima donna episodes.

The first incident happened in late April when Tabata, frustrated after a striking out, left the team in the seventh inning. He was suspended three games for the boneheaded move. He said it had nothing to do with his mates; he was just feeling pressure, as only a highly-touted Yankee prospect can, and lost it.

A month later, it was deja vu all over again. He was either asked to leave the game after failing to back up Austin Jackson in the outfield, or got into a shoving match inside the dugout with infielder Reegie Corona, leading to Tabata being dragged into the clubhouse tunnel by his teammates. Maybe it was a little of both; it just depends who you ask. At any rate, he was suspended again.

Tabata served his time once more and returned, just in time to severely pull his hammy. To top it all off, he was hitting .248 and showed no power to speak of at the dish. Tired of his act - and probably performance - the Yankees acted.

On July 26, 2008, he was dealt to the Pirates with Ross Ohlendorf, Jeff Karstens, and Dan McCutchen for Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte. Bye-bye, problem child. The Pirates saw it differently.

The Bucs said Tabata was the key to the deal. GM Neal Huntington told Jen Langosch of that "Quite frankly, if we had the opportunity to trade two players of the caliber of Damaso Marte and Xavier Nady [for Tabata] last December, I think we would have done that in a heartbeat."

They sent Tabata to Altoona after some GCL rehab time, and the change of scene seemed to do him good. Away from the prying eyes and poisoned pens of the New York press, he put together a .348/.402/.562 line with 3 dingers and 36 RBI in 89 at-bats. His behavior, by all accounts, was angelic.

At age 20, we expect the Pirates to start him off with the Curve, and probably pencil him in at Indy when Andrew McCutchen gets his inevitable call to the show.

What's the outlook for Jose Tabata? First, his disposition is what it is. He's been described as extremely confident in his abilities, bordering on cocky. And that's OK, if his butt can back up his mouth. Humility isn't exactly a MLB virtue that's widely practiced in today's game.

The Yankees were grooming him to take Bobby Abreu's place in right field, and that seems about right. His wheels are OK, his arm is a rifle, and he played center at Altoona. But he's packed on 40 pounds since the Evil Empire inked him, and Tabata's a 5-11, 215 pound fireplug now. So he'll fit into a corner OF spot in the show.

Now for the bat. He was described as a five tool player, but nothing in his resume suggests he'll ever hit for power. Tabata has 21 long balls in 1,280 minor-league at bats, so we can forget clean-up.

But except for that bummer of a season at Trenton last year, he's had a .370-.400 OBP, and has terrific line-drive gap power. So he looks like he'll be a natural for the three hole. Scouting reports say that the AA pitchers found a hole in his swing and pounded him inside last year; hopefully he and Don Long will solve that problem.

Signs to watch out for are his maturity and attitude - he was widely thought to take some plays off while a member of the Yankee system - and his weight. If Tabata keeps those in check, he should turn into a heck of a ballplayer.

Along with McCutchen, he's as close to a can't-miss prospect as the Pirate system has. Here's how Baseball America has rated him over the years:

2006 - #3 ranked for NYY
2007 - #27 ranked MLB
2007 - #2 ranked for NYY
2008 - #37 ranked MLB
2008 - #3 ranked for NYY
2009 - #75 ranked for MLB
2009 - #3 ranked for Pittsburgh

And the final word, from Scouting Book, with his report just before he was traded:
"Tabata is a polished fielder who's almost major-league ready, despite his young age. A natural right fielder with excellent patience, many see him as a natural fit to replace Bobby Abreu. He needs another year or two of mental development, but other than that and a place to play, there's not much holding him back.

Tabata is likely to be sought after in trades by teams who have more immediate needs than New York, and if one of those teams gets a hold of the young line-drive hitter, the likelihood of a debut in the near future will go up sharply.

(Jose Tabata has been traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates as the headliner in a four prospect package for veterans Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte. Tabata will fall down a notch or two, as Pittsburgh has much more outfield depth, but he should benefit long-term. The future Pirate outfield of McCutchen, McLouth, Tabata could be one of the league's best.)"
Let's hope they're right.


WilliamJPellas said...

40 pounds is a big weight gain for a guy who's just barely 20 year of age---assuming, of course, that he isn't older than he claims to be, something you're never really sure about when it comes to Latin or South American players. Or the Taiwanese "Little League" team, for that matter, heh heh heh.

Anyhoo, I can tell you from seeing him myself last year at Altoona that Tabata's skills are off the page. He is definitely a man among boys at the double-A level, and he made everything look effortless. I'm holding my breath about him just a bit because of his temper and apparent love of cheeseburgers, but it looks for all the world like he is the second coming of Bill Madlock---including the bad eating habits. I'd sure be happy with Madlock-like numbers, even if Mad Dog was an infielder and Tabata an outfielder.

Ron Ieraci said...

Hey Will - since you've seen him play, give us a little more scoop, bro. How's his wheels and glove?

WilliamJPellas said...

Unfortunately I've only seen him once, Ron, so I don't have a comprehensive scouting report to give you. I will say that what I saw was a guy who seemed to glide everywhere he went. He didn't look like he loafing or that he wasn't giving "maximum effort" per se, but rather that he was extremely effective without having to try real hard. The overall impression was that he made everything he did look like the easiest thing in the world.

I saw him catch a couple of fly balls and he looked very comfortable and he seemed to go back on the ball very well. I didn't get to see him chase any gap shots or try to throw anyone out, so this is, again, not very thorough. I will say that he seemed to have at least average speed despite a body that admittedly already looks kind of "blocky" or spark-pluggish.

At the plate I saw an extremely quick stroke and the ball really leaps off his bat with a lot of life.

All in all, in other words, this guy is the real deal.

Ron Ieraci said...

You told me plenty, Will. If he can still move around the outfield OK, then his wheels aren't creaking under his bulk; a couple of reports said he was getting haevy-legged.

And I had read that he has about the quickest pair of wrists in the game - sounds like you agree with that. Thanks for the eyeball info.