The cornerstone that wasn’t


SOUTH HILLS – Remember when Jose Tabata was supposed to be part of the Pirates’ future? The former Yankee farmhand and top 30 overall prospect came over in the Xavier Nady deal in 2009 and was the first player under Neal Huntington – not Andrew McCutchen – signed to an arbitration buyout deal, a six-year, $15 million deal with three club options.

On Tuesday, Tabata – not Travis Snider or Clint Barmes – was somewhat surprisingly out-righted to Triple-A, clearing irrevocable waivers and accepting the minor league assignment.

So what went wrong? And why was it Tabata who was banished?

The trouble started with the Yankees. The following is Tabata’s prospect ranking by year.

Baseball America:

Pre-2007: Rated #27 Prospect
Pre-2008: Rated #37 Prospect
Pre-2009: Rated #75 Prospect

Baseball Prospectus:

Pre-2007: Rated #22 Prospect
Pre-2008: Rated #48 Prospect
Pre-2009: Rated #91 Prospect
Pre-2010: Rated #90 Prospect

You’ll notice that Tabata’s prospect stock was declining year by year. I wonder do prospects who have such trajectories typically fail at a significantly higher rate than prospects who maintain stock? Is there an opportunity to buy low or should such a trend raise major red flags?

Tabata put himself on the prospect map by hitting .298 in Low-A ball in 2006. He hit .306 in the Florida State League the following year but  had a poor start to the 2008 season before being dealt to the Pirates before the tradeline.

So what happened?

The power never showed up. Power is supposed to be the last tool to develop, the Pirates it would, but it never did. Tabata has never posted an isolated slugging mark north of .146 in any minor or major league stop in which he’s played at least 30 games – and his speed declined.

Tabata’s future was always as a corner outfielder and to be an everyday player there he had to hit with more power or be exceptional defensively and/or on the bases. None of these aspects ever developed.

Instead he became a hitter with a .275/.338/.380 slash line over parts of five seasons. That’s not awful but that’s not a line for a first-division corner outfielder, maybe a shortstop.

Prospects don’t always pan out, of course. And Tabata is also a reminder that not every arbitration-buyout deal works out in the club’s favor. (Though it is not a payroll-crippling contract).

What’s also curious is why was it Tabata that was banished?

Tabata has a superior career track record to that of Snider and he’s owned $9 million over the next two years.  Their projections for the rest of 2014 are rather similar. Tabata doesn’t have platoon splits and Snider hasn’t exactly crushed right-handed pitching. Tabata could be a serviceable fourth outfielder.

The Pirates might think Snider is simply the better player with more upside going forward. Snider did beat Tabata out for the job coming of the spring.

Clint Hurdle said it was “strictly” a baseball decision and one that gave the club the chance to be most “competitive.” What was is it they liked so much more about Snider than Tabata that the might be willing to eat $9 million to cover?  I don’t think the Pirates think Tabata can get much better – whether it be tied to physical limitations, aptitude or baseball makeup. They might see more  upside in Snider and they probably prefer his left-handedness.  Still, it’s curious. The Pirates could have been cheap here.

While it was readily apparent before Tuesday, it became official that Tabata is no longer a part of the future plans.

Not every cornerstone fits.

– TS