Bucs' Tabata facing pivotal season in 2013

Rob Biertempfel
| Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013, 11:54 p.m.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Jose Tabata's body is adorned with myriad tattoos: pictures, words and names, each with special significance.

He got his first — an image of his childhood idol, Roberto Clemente — on his chest near his heart when he was 13 years old.

A few months ago, Tabata had the Clemente tattoo removed. It was not intended as a gesture of disrespect. Rather, it was a sort of catharsis.

“It was like my heart told me I had to let it go,” Tabata said. “Clemente accomplished many things. Now it's time for me to accomplish something. I am Jose Tabata. I've got to do my job.”

Only 24, Tabata already has worn many labels: Prodigy. Rising star. Building block. Underperformer. Malcontent. Enigma. As he prepares for what could be the pivotal season of his career, the Pirates outfielder has reinvented himself again.

“I've changed everything,” he said flashing his infectious grin. “I want everything to be better. After last season, I prepared my body and worked a lot. I want to be better every day. I want to be consistent.”

Tabata paused and smiled again.

“I feel good,” he said. “I don't know why, but ... I feel great.”

After making his big league debut in June 2010, Tabata hit .299 and seemed able to tame the spacious left field at PNC Park. The next season, injuries limited Tabata to 91 games, but he still signed a six-year, $15 million contract that includes options that could keep him in Pittsburgh through 2019.

Tabata reported to spring training last year knowing for the first time he was secure financially. But he also knew the Pirates planned to shift him to right field, where he would be stationed in front of that 21-foot wall — figuratively playing in Clemente's shadow.

“It was a little hard for me last year,” Tabata said. “Maybe because I went to right field last year and didn't feel comfortable. It happens.”

Tabata hit .230 over the first 72 games and was demoted to Triple-A Indianapolis. For his first couple of weeks in the minors, Tabata sulked and was lazy on the field. Eventually, he realized he was squandering an opportunity — and possibly his career.

“I think he understands this is a game of second chances, but sooner or later you run out of chances,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “When he got back to us, he was a better player than when he'd left.”

The Pirates' roster looked different when Tabata returned in mid-August. Rookie Starling Marte had taken over in left field. The club had acquired right fielder Travis Snider, a former top prospect for the Toronto Blue Jays, in a deadline-day trade.

Marte and Snider are expected to be the starting corner outfielders on Opening Day. In training camp, Tabata is battling Alex Presley, Jerry Sands, Brad Hawpe and Felix Pie for a backup job. Tabata is out of minor league options, which adds to the sense of urgency.

Tabata opted out of winter ball in his native Venezuela so he could focus on his offseason workouts. He came into camp looking more muscular and noticeably happier than he did a year ago. It's a good start to what should be a crucial season for Tabata, one way or another.

“Anything can happen in this game,” Tabata said, “so every day I will work and do my job.”

Tabata did not start any of the Pirates' first four spring training games, although he came off the bench Monday and hit a game-tying, solo homer.

Sitting at his locker after the game, he nodded when the recent injury to New York Yankees outfielder Curtis Granderson was mentioned. Granderson will be out 10 weeks, and the Yankees are seeking a replacement.

Someone suggested a change of scenery — returning to the team that traded him to the Pirates in 2008 — might be good for Tabata. A fresh start. He thought it over for a moment.

“Whatever happens, I want to play in the big leagues,” Tabata said. “Only God knows what's my future.”

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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