Pirates notebook: Tabata will have to earn time in outfield
By Rob Biertempfel
Published: Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012, 9:44 p.m.
NASHVILLE — Once considered a potential cornerstone of the Pirates' outfield, Jose Tabata will go into spring training as a bench player who must impress management for scraps of playing time.
General manager Neal Huntington said Travis Snider will get first crack at the right-field job, and Starling Marte is set in left. However, Huntington did not go so far as to say this is a make-or-break year for Tabata with the Pirates.
“He's still young enough and talented enough,” Huntington said. “With Taby, a big part of it is just conditioning. We need to get him back to where he was a couple of years ago. If we can do that, the athlete is going to show up again and the bat speed is going to show up again.”
In a career-high 103 games last season, Tabata, 24, set career-lows by batting .243 with three homers, 16 RBI and eight stolen bases. He was banished to Triple-A Indianapolis for about six weeks.
A native of El Tigre, Venezuela, Tabata wants to play winter ball for his hometown club. Last year, he talked with great pride about being invited to the team for the first time instead of having to ask for a roster spot. However, the Pirates discouraged Tabata from playing winter ball and instead set him up with a personal trainer in Florida.
“We've checked in on him a number of times,” Huntington said. “We had some conversations about (winter ball) and agreed it was best for Jose to focus on strength and conditioning, to get into the best shape of his life and come into camp ready to compete for a job.”
Then again, there are no guarantees Tabata will be on the Pirates' roster when camp opens Feb. 12 in Bradenton, Fla. He has a team-friendly contract (six years, $15 million plus two options) and is starting to look like one of those guys who needs a change of venue to jump-start his career.
Tabata's name has not popped up in trade rumors this week at the winter meetings. But Huntington has stressed in the past that he'd consider dealing practically any player — Andrew McCutchen is likely the only exception — if it makes the club better.
The Pirates explored the possibility of dealing first baseman Garrett Jones to the Mariners but made little progress. According to one rumor circulating in the lobby Tuesday, they were rebuffed when they offered Jones in exchange for right-hander Taijaun Walker, the Mariners' top pitching prospect.
Early Tuesday night, Huntington talked to reporters in a hallway at the Gaylord Hotel and vehemently, loudly denied any such trade offer was made involving Jones.
Monday, the Seattle Times reported the Pirates mulled sending Jones and closer Joel Hanrahan to the Mariners for first baseman Justin Smoak, catcher John Jaso and pitcher Hector Noesi.
Big deals = shallow pool
When McCutchen signed his six-year, $51.5 million contract in March, he joined a growing number of players who accept long-term, pre-arbitration deals. It's a route also taken by Joey Votto, Cameron Maybin, Ryan Zimmerman and Carlos Santana, among others.
When budding stars are locked up early, it helps dry up future free agent markets. Huntington said he's noticing the effect.
“I feel like an old curmudgeon, but I certainly feel each year that the free agent market has been shallower and less talented,” Huntington said.
Stay the course
As darkness settled in on the second day of the winter meetings, the Pirates had not made any player moves. Huntington said he won't be swayed by external pressure to do a deal during the meetings.
“I've said from Year 1 that we're never going to win the offseason,” Huntington said. “You look at the clubs that won the offseason a year ago, where were they in September and October? We're doing what we can do to build a winning organization. It may not happen today. It may take some time, and I don't think any single move is going to make it happen. We've got to stay true to the process.”
Around the horn
Right-hander Kyle McPherson, who will compete for a job in the rotation this spring, was brought home early from winter ball due to a sore shoulder. Huntington said surgery will not be necessary and McPherson is expected to be ready for spring training. ... New hitting coach Jay Bell arrived at the winter meetings to touch base with the front office staff. Bell had been in New Zealand, helping coach that country's team in the qualifying round for the World Baseball Classic. ... Huntington said he hasn't yet decided whether to hold a voluntary minicamp in January at Pirate City in Bradenton.
Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7811.
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