Over the weekend, two Pittsburgh outfielders started their rehab assignments at the same time. Since they’ve been injured, much has changed on their major league team. At one point, the Pirates were in first place. Now they are in fourth. They were above five hundred, now they’re seven games under. They were buyers, and now they are 13 games out of first and might already be looking to next year.
But, most importantly for fantasy baseball addicts, the two jobs that were theirs have been distilled down into one starting spot. Yup, Jose Tabata and Alex Presley will return soon and they may find themselves in a battle for playing time.
If the winner was to be determined by current stats alone, the incumbent — The 23-year-old Tabata — would be in trouble. Thanks to a deterioration in his power, his .705 OPS and .320 wOBA are both below average for a corner outfielder. The 26-year-old Presley would be king based on the .896 OPS and .387 wOBA he accrued in 93 plate appearances so far this year. But of course the question is more about who can be better going forward.
Presley has obviously been fortunate. His .388 BABIP (.359 xBABIP) has helped prop up some work that is otherwise somewhat similar to Tabata’s. Presley’s numbers first, Tabata’s second: Walk rate (9.7%, 11.1%), strikeout rate (15.1%, 14.8%), and ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio (2.40, 2.55). Tabata has obviously been suffering with his quad injury, but look at their career speed scores (5.8 for Tabata, 6.6 for Presley) and they’re both above-average. The picture painted is one of two lower-powered players with good plate discipline and some speed. He’s also not under contract with the team next year.
Could power separate the two? The team could use some oomph, and Presley has shown much more of it in the early going (.160 ISO to Tabata’s .089). Could Presley keep it up? His Triple-A ISO over his past two-half seasons was .162, which suggests that he’s close. Tabata’s Triple-A ISO was .106. Presley is clearly more powerful.
The question might be if Presley’s similarity to Tabata in terms of plate discipline will continue. He’s walking at an above-average rate right now, but his minor league walk rate was 7.6%. Tabata’s overall 8.2% MiLB walk rate isn’t hugely impressive, but it’s better. Also, Tabata’s last full stint in Triple-A produced a walk rate over nine, while Presley failed to crack eight percent in the same park.
The last wrinkle comes in human form. Ryan Ludwick joined the team at the deadline, and he’s basically the reason why Presley and Tabata may compete for time. But the 33-year-old Ludwick has a .297 wOBA, and that number was only .324 last year. He strikes out more than either speedster, doesn’t walk a bunch more, and if shows power worse than Presley (.124 ISO right now), he’ll prove himself to be a worse option. We know that Pittsburgh is even less friendly to righties than PetCo (73 park factor for RHBs, 95 in PetCo), so holding out hope that Luddie will find his power this year might be futile.
If the Pirates are in full win-now mode, it might be a three-way scrum for playing time. The left-handed Presley might even platoon with the right-handed Tabata. But if the team is willing to shift focus to the future, the two youngsters should start stealing time from Ludwick shortly. What was billed as a position battle between two youngsters might just be the opening bell on a veteran’s fight to remain a major league regular.
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