A little bit more about Jose Tabata’s contract

The Pirates finalized their extension with Jose Tabata on Sunday, so let’s tackle some of the main questions I’ve seen about this deal since word of it broke on Friday. Some of this stuff may seem basic to some of you, but the team control years and arbitration years and such are pretty confusing, so I’m going to try and touch all the bases here. 

What are the details? 
The key thing that we’ve learned since Friday is that the base six-year deal includes 2011, which means that the base deal doesn’t buy out any of his free agent years. Those years are covered by the three team options. All this really means is that the deal isn’t quite as team-friendly as it seemed on Friday, though buying out all of Tabata’s team-controlled years for $15 million and getting three team options on the first three years of his free agency is still a great deal for the Pirates. It’s still one-sided enough in the Pirates’ favor that Tabata had to part ways with his agent to sign it, which is a good indication of how much the final contract favors the Pirates. 

In short, though, the main body of this deal covers 2011-2016, which includes Tabata’s 0-2 years (2011-2013) in which the Pirates can pay Tabata the league minimum and his arbitration years (2014-2016). Tabata would’ve been a Pirate in these years anyway, but it fixes his cost for the team. Then it adds three team options that could more than double the value of the contract, paying him $6.5 million in 2017, $7.5 million in 2018, and $8.5 million in 2019. Presumably if the Pirates don’t want to pick up those options, there’s a buyout that probably decreases in value from year to year. 

Why would the Pirates sign Jose Tabata to an extension and not Neil Walker and/or Andrew McCutchen?
Remember that every Major League player is under team control for the first six full years of his career and that since Walker and McCutchen didn’t play full seasons in their rookie years, the Pirates get them for closer to seven years. McCutchen can’t be a free agent until after the 2015 season and Walker, like Tabata, won’t be one until after the 2016 season. It’s pretty unlikely that either of these guys will sign a deal as team-friendly as Tabata did and so the negotiations will be tougher for the Pirates, but that doesn’t mean they’re not interested in signing them. 

Why would the Pirates sign a player like Jose Tabata to an extension like this? 
This is probably the biggest question: Tabata’s not exactly going to be the player scouts thought he was going to be when he was 18 or 19. He’ll probably develop a little bit more power, but he’s not going to be a home run hitter. He’s not going to be a center fielder with the Pirates, either, because Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte are both stronger defensive outfielders. 

That doesn’t mean that Tabata’s worthless, though. If the Pirates have a middle of the lineup guy in center field, they can certainly afford to play someone like Tabata in a corner. If he’s shown anything this year, I think it’s that there’s a pretty good chance that he’s got the potential to develop into a heck of a leadoff hitter. He’s drawing a lot more walks and if he hits .300 or so, he’s going to have an awfully high OBP. That’s going to be valuable whether he hits 10 home runs or 25 home runs. 

The other important thing here is that the Pirates have a lot of players in the early stages of their careers and that means that they have a whole lot of payroll uncertainty as these players head towards arbitration years. They only have about $11 million in payroll committed to 2012 and less than $5 million to any year between 2013 and 2015 because they just don’t know what they’re going to be paying guys like McCutchen, Walker, McDonald, Morton, Hanrahan, etc. Now they know what they’re going to be paying Tabata, and that’s a good thing for them. 

Does this mean Tabata won’t be traded?
No. Not at all. In fact, it likely makes him easier to trade. The Pirates need strong defensive play from both left and center field because of the North Side Notch at PNC Park and because Andrew McCutchen is a rising star, they can sacrifice a bit of offense for defense in left field. But as the club is currently constructed, all of their outfielders and outfield prospects above Josh Bell are of the lighter-hitting, speedier variety. Obviously we’re less than sure of what Tabata, Starling Marte, and Alex Presley are capable of, but I think the Pirates would probably like to see some more pop in right field if they have McCutchen and one of those three in center and left. 

The Pirates clearly aren’t thinking of dealing Tabata right now, but long-term they have weaknesses and they have a surplus of athletic, speedy, power-light outfielders. Someone’s going to be traded, and having a long-term contract doesn’t protect Tabata from being the one that’s dealt.  

The bottom line is: 
It might seem weird to sign a player like Tabata to this kind of deal, but the reality here is that this deal is so very cheap that it’s hard to complain. Even in the sixth year of the deal, Tabata’s making less than $5 million. That means he’d probably have to be worth less than one win above replacement in 2016 for the deal to be completely not worth it. Even if he’s a bench player or the short end of a platoon, he could be worth 1 WAR. And if he develops into more than that, the Pirates have him cheaply through 2016 and for a reasonable price through 2019.

It’s hard to complain about any aspect of this deal from the Pirates’ side. As a fan, well, here’s a player who’s said that being a Pirate and playing in Roberto Clemete’s spike prints means something to him, and who just went out and signed a deal that proved it. 

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.

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