How much do we really know about Jose Tabata? The Pittsburgh Pirates seem to think he’s a valuable commodity since they locked him up with a six-year-deal. While Tabata has accumulated only 770 plate appearances at the major league level, the Pirates were comfortable enough with his performances that they decided he was part of the team’s future. Tabata’s performance in the majors has been admirable — and the deal doesn’t get that expensive until 2017 — but there are still some questions about Tabata that could make this deal worse than it looks.
Let’s start with the good. Tabata is experiencing somewhat of a breakout season in 2011. After posting solid numbers in his rookie season — albeit with little power for a corner outfielder — Tabata has been able to increase his walk rate this season while keeping many of his other peripherals in line. While he may struggle to ever post double-digit home runs, his .363 on-base percentage currently rates second on the team (behind Andrew McCutchen). Still, his unsightly .385 slugging percentage definitely limits his upside.
Tabata is far from an elite player, and the Pirates were smart enough to recognize this fact when putting the deal together. As we’ve explained on FanGraphs many times before — a win is worth about $5 million — a figure Tabata won’t make until at least 2017. In his rookie season, Tabata was worth 2.1 WAR. He’s on pace to match that number this season as well, so he’s already proven to be quite a nice pickup for the Pirates. If the 23-year-old can improve on his performances going forward, the Pirates will have a complete steal on their hands here.
There in lies the rub. There are some questions about whether Tabata is truly 23 years old. While he’s always been regarded as a top prospect, that ranking has always come with a caveat about his age. If Tabata is/was a few years older than we have been led to believe, his performances don’t warrant the type of prospect hype he’s been given. Let’s face it, a 25-year-old outfielder with a poor history of hitting for power in the minors isn’t exactly the type of player you want your team signing for six additional seasons.
If Tabata is indeed 23 years old — and there’s potentially still some projection left in his bat — the deal has the potential to really benefit the Pirates. Even if he doesn’t improve, his current performance should be enough to outperform the deal over the next couple of seasons. In this scenario, the deal would take Tabata right up to his peak seasons — where he would have another shot at securing a big contract. If Tabata is two to three years older than he says (something we may never actually find out), the deal looks less rosy. There’s definitely a risk the Pirates just locked up an outfielder in his mid-twenties that has shown zero power over his career. Those types of players don’t tend to improve much.
Either way, Tabata should come at a bargain for the Pirates over the next couple of seasons. Even when the
player team options start to kick in, there’s a decent chance Tabata will still be considered a steal for the Pirates. While it seems like the Pirates took a risk committing to a player with some question marks, this is not the type of deal that will cripple the franchise if Tabata completely falters over the next couple of seasons. There’s a chance Tabata improves and this deal looks like a total steal for the Pirates. But it’s more than likely Tabata has already reached his ceiling. That’s not necessarily a bad thing given the terms of the contract, but it’s not a good one either.