3/3/2013 6:45 P.M. ET
Tabata's renaissance scrambles outfield plans
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
BRADENTON, Fla. -- The reawakening of Jose Tabata continues as a leading recurring theme of the Pirates' Spring Training. He talks about feeling like a new man, club staffers talk about seeing a new man.
Everyone can say what they want, but actions still trump words. And if there is one instant that vouched loudest for the new verve with which still only 24-year-old Tabata is attacking the game, it came early on Sunday in the Bucs' 8-6 exhibition victory over the Astros.
With two outs in the second inning, Tabata was on second base after a two-run double -- his suddenly daily extra-base hit, and more on that later -- when Clint Barmes grounded to short and Tyler Greene threw in the dirt shy of first base. The ball hardly bounced away from first baseman Brett Wallace, but by the time he retrieved it and looked toward the plate, Tabata had already crossed it.
This is the guy who last summer, less than a year into his six-year contract, was shipped to Indianapolis for several reasons, among them his lack of hustle.
Darn right manager Clint Hurdle took note of Tabata's sprint, which made a good impression that had not faded seven innings and 2 1/2 hours later.
"Anybody who can run has to show that tool every day," Hurdle said. "You never know when you'll have an opportunity to show it. There was no play whatsoever on [Tabata]. He got a good, aggressive lead off second base. Soon as the ball is put in play, he is off and running, clean turn around third and a strong finish home. It definitely shows up."
For those keeping score at home of Tabata's tool chest, guess you can check off "speed" as the latest to show up. Hurdle has the checklist, because he might have a very difficult call to make.
An irresistible revival by Tabata complicates an already complex situation in right field. The Pirates really want Travis Snider to stand out and nail down the job: He is young (under team control for three more years) and a high-upside, two-way player. Clint Robinson, Jerry Sands, Alex Presley and incumbent Garrett Jones are also in line. Felix Pie has looked sharp, and two other non-roster candidates (Darren Ford and Brad Hawpe) have also done noteworthy things.
Tabata can smudge any blueprint.
"I want Jose to show us the skill set we've seen in the past," Hurdle said a few days ago, in response to how Tabata could return to the forefront. "He's had trouble connecting the dots. Injury, the league punching back, making adjustments to that. Sooner or later, you run out of chances. At his age, this is a good opportunity for him to recapture his skill set."
Tabata came on the scene with mad skills, batting .299 as a 21-year-old rookie in 2010, and continued on that pace for much of the following season. He stumbled late in 2011 -- yes, soon after signing that six-year deal -- and essentially tripped over the doorsill to 2012, dragging a .216 average into June.
For the first time, he admits the likelihood of something others have whispered about him: The long-term contract made him complacent.
"It was a little hard for me last year. I don't know why -- maybe because they gave me right field, and that made me feel comfortable," Tabata said. "I know now I've got to be consistent every day, no matter what.
"I changed everything, and I feel great. I don't know why, but I feel good. After the season, I wanted to prepare my body (the reason he skipped playing winter ball in his native Venezuela). You can see -- well, maybe you can't -- the difference. I'm stronger. I opened up my batting stance. Last year, I was too closed. I didn't have power."
He has never had power. That has been one of the easier knocks against a 5-foot-11, 215-pound fire hydrant. His career high is four home runs, and his career slugging percentage is a banjo-class .372.
Tabata hasn't had power until this spring, that is. He is batting .308, and each of his hits has been for extra bases (one homer, three doubles) to yield a .769 slugging percentage.
"His timing is not bad," said Jay Bell, the team's new batting coach. "For him to be as good as he is this early is a really good sign. He's got a lot of talent. It's certainly enjoyable to watch talented players swing a bat."
Tabata also has a lot of competition. If job security made him soft a year ago, he should feel like steel now.
"Yeah, there are a lot [of other players] out there," Tabata said. "It's whatever the manager says. The Pirates want to go to the playoffs, so everybody has a good challenge. We all come here to do a job."
"That could be a motivator," Hurdle conceded of the competition. "My conversations with [Tabata] have never been clearer, more transparent. There are still a lot of people here pulling for him. Nobody doesn't want him to do well, and he's got to take the initiative and do the things he controls to make that happen. That has to be his biggest motivator."
It sounds like Hurdle means Tabata needed to have a good talk with himself. Sounds like Tabata listened.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.