Jose Tabata in his mid-twenties?

Since Neal Huntington became general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates in September of 2007, the organization has undergone wholesale changes in player evaluation and resource allocation. Gone are the mind-bending days of passing up B.J. Upton and Matt Wieters to save a quick buck, forfeiting staggering amounts of surplus value in those zero-to-six years of service time in the process. Also gone are the days of paying large chunks of cash to veterans on their last legs, such as Matt Morris and Jeromy Burnitz.

According to Baseball America, the Pirates spent a MLB-high $18.7 million in the 2008 and 2009 drafts. Pittsburgh ponied up for Pedro Alvarez in ’08, while also giving a seven-figure bonus to 6th-round pick Robbie Grossman, a toolsy outfielder, and a $900,000 bonus to 20th-rounder Quinton Miller, a hard-throwing righty.

The renewed focus on snatching up talent in the draft continued this past June. The Bucs elicited some grumbles by drafting catcher Tony Sanchez with the fourth overall selection (a defensible move, in my opinion-an average to above-average player at a premium position is a valuable commodity). But Pittsburgh gave $600,000 to fourth-round lefty Zack Dodson, $1.2 million to eighth-round righty Zack Von Rosenberg and $1.125 million to eighth-round left-hander Colton Cain.

In addition to the beefed up draft budget, the Pirates opened a $5 million complex in the Dominican Republic. And the major league roster has been radically altered, with numerous veterans jettisoned in favor of young, cost-controlled talent.

Unfortunately, one of the more promising farmhands acquired in the flurry of trades over the past two seasons might be several years older than originally thought. Jose Tabata, picked up from the Yankees in June of 2008 along with Ross Ohlendorf, Daniel McCutchen and Jeff Karstens for Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte, might be in his mid-twenties instead of his listed age of 21.

According to Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, GM Huntington recently said the following regarding Tabata’s age:

All of the documentation he has used to obtain his visa from the U.S. government and his passport from the Venezuelan government indicates his reported age is accurate. Apart from unfounded speculation, there is nothing to indicate his age any different than reported. My point is that while we have reason to doubt his reported age, it is a non-issue to us.

And here is Biertempfel’s take on Tabata:

Even if Tabata should have three or four more candles on his birthday cake, he’s still considered a top prospect. But how good he is, to a degree, does depend on his age.

To be clear, there is nothing concrete to suggest that Tabata is older than his listed age. But Huntington’s comments do leave some degree of doubt. While Tabata’s age is said to be a “non-issue,” it could play a very large role in how he is regarded as a prospect.

Having turned 21 this past August, Tabata is considered one of the better outfielders in the minors. The 5-11, 220 pound Venezuelan is a better athlete than his frame would suggest, though he’s going to play a corner spot in the majors. Tabata is a career .295/.364/.402 hitter in the minors, and batted a combined .293/.357/.406 between Double-A and Triple-A this past season.

That performance as a 20 year-old garnered plenty of prospect accolades. Baseball America ranked Tabata as the second-best talent in the Pittsburgh system in November, saying that “he has the potential to be an all-star right fielder if his power develops.” John Sickels also dubbed Tabata the second-best prospect in the Pirates’ organization in December, giving him a B grade and noting his age relative to the levels at which he played: “I don’t know if I agree with the Pirates about his power, but I do believe them about his age and at 21 he is still VERY young with high upside.”

ESPN’s Keith Law placed Tabata as the 57th-best prospect in the game in late January. Said Law:

The two major questions now on Tabata are whether his pattern of making very hard contact is going to lead to above-average power in games, and whether his listed date of birth is accurate…if he’s really 23 or 24, he wouldn’t make the Top 100 at all.

And there is the crux of the issue. At 21, Tabata is considered a precocious talent who has kept his head above water while competing with players several years his senior. He gets the benefit of the doubt in terms of future power output, with the thought process being that he has years of development time left. If, however, Tabata is 23 or 24, then we are talking about a player with less projection, who played at an age-appropriate level and didn’t really stand out from his peers.

To what extent a few extra birthdays would ding Tabata’s prospect status is up for interpretation, but there’s no doubt that it would decrease his standing within the organization.

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Thanks to extensive research conducted by Victor Wang, we can get a feel for how much of an impact those extra candles on the cake would have on Tabata’s expected value to the Pirates.

Wang calculated the expected surplus value (how much a player’s production would cost to replace on the free agent market, minus his actual salary) of players during their first six years of major league service time, based on prospect tiers.

Why the first six years? Teams have control over a player for the first six years of his career. Those 0-3 year players make peanuts compared to their free agent market value, and the 4-6 year guys still generally earn less than they would if all teams could bid on their services. After that, clubs choosing to retain a player are usually paying the full sticker price. Wang found the values for top 100 prospects based on Baseball America rankings from 1990-1999. For players not ranked in the top 100, he used John Sickels’ prospect grades.

Here is the list of the expected surplus values from Wang’s research, courtesy of Beyond the Boxscore:

Top 10 hitting prospects $36.5M
Top 11-25 hitters $25.1
Top 26-50 hitters $23.4
Top 51-75 hitters $14.2
Top 76-100 hitters $12.5
Grade B hitters $5.5
Grade C hitters 22 or younger $0.7
Grade C hitters 23 or older $0.5

Let’s say a 21 year-old Tabata qualifies in the Top 51-75 range, with an expected surplus value of $14.2 million during the first six years of his big league career. If he is actually 23 or 24, it’s a safe assumption that he would fall off the top 100 entirely, and would place in the Grade B hitters as rated by Sickels. That’s a hit of $8.7 million in expected surplus value ($14.2 million in surplus value as a Top 51-75 hitter to $5.5 million in surplus value as a Grade B hitter not making BA’s Top 100 list).

A 21 year-old Tabata has considerable value. A 23 or 24 year-old Tabata, however, is much more of a question mark. It would appear that the outfielder’s age is actually a very large issue for the Bucs.

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It’s still weird that he has a 43-year old baby-snatching wife.

The good news for Huntington is that even if Tabata never plays a game in MLB, it was still a good trade.