With Jerry Sands' demotion earlier this week, it became pretty clear that Jose Tabata will start 2013 out in Pittsburgh, most likely as Travis Snider's primary backup/platoon partner in right field. Tabata's only 24, but this is almost certainly his last chance to play regularly for for the Pirates. If he can't hack it in the early part of this season, Sands will be at Triple-A waiting to relieve him and Tabata will probably be ignominiously non-tendered or appended as an inconsequential throw-in in a trade to some other poor Neal-Huntington-in-2008-type sap, loading up on ex-blue chip prospects to try and accelerate his club's rebuilding process.
Tabata is on fire this spring, with four doubles and a home run in 26 at-bats. People are raving about his conditioning. He's still only 24. There are counterpoints to every single one of these points, of course: spring training stats don't matter, Jose Tabata is always in great shape during spring training, and despite no concrete evidence ever emerging there have always been persistent whispers that he's older than he says. My concern with Tabata is more straightforward than any of those things: Tabata's had 1197 MLB plate appearances and his OP+ is 97. He's declined every year in the big leagues. The question I have is pretty straightforward: can position players that start young, play fairly regularly, and struggle at the plate find success?
I set up a Play Index search for players 23 or younger with at least 1100 plate appearances and an OPS+ of 100 or less. That search turned up 166 players, and of that 166, plenty of them went on to find success in the big leagues. You don't have to do much more than find Tabata's name and look at the other players on the list with an OPS+ of 97; Hall of Famer George Kell is there along with Pudge Rodriguez and Carl Crawford. Adrian Beltre is on the list just ahead of Tabata, Troy Tulowitzki is just behind him. Carlos Beltran had a miserable age-23 season that dragged him way down on the list. Pirate fans, of course, know that Roberto Clemente's first three seasons were pretty miserable at the plate and that his first five weren't very good.
It is important to note that the list is mostly populated by players that turned out much, much worse than those guys. Not every young superstar starts their career out like Mike Trout, but not every struggling young hitter turns into Roberto Clemente, or even Carl Crawford. Tabata's always been hard to get a read on because he was extremely young for every level he stopped at in the minor leagues. On top of that, he dealt with some injuries and questions about his behavior and mental makeup followed him all through the minors. Tabata's minor league numbers pretty much look like his big league ones; the idea has always been that once he settles in at the big league level, that he'll start to become more productive at the plate. It seemed like a strong theory in 2009, but I'm much less confident of it right now.
So how long does Tabata get in 2013 before we see Jerry Sands start to take playing time from him? It's hard to say, but I would imagine that it's probably going to be tied pretty closely to whether we see a Jose Tabata that resembles the 2010/2011 Tabata or one that looks like the guy that floundered last year. In the first two years of his career, Tabata wasn't great by any stretch, but he seemed to be developing a very good eye for such a young international player; in 2011 he drew 40 walks in 382 plate appearances and had a .349 OBP despite a .266 batting average. Last year, he could barely do anything right at the plate and ended up with a .243/.315/.348 triple-slash line.
In any case, I think the Pirates are right to give Tabata one more shot ahead of Sands this year. I probably wouldn't have said that two months ago, but seeing Tabata come to camp in shape (even though it happens every year) and hitting the ball (even though spring training stats are not very useful) is enough for me to think he deserves another shot. Whether or not he'll do something with that shot … we'll see.