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Tabata looks to break out after injury-plagued 2011

| Monday, March 12, 2012

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Sometimes when he is batting, Jose Tabata will let a pitch go by for a called strike because it's not quite what he wants. Then he'll turn toward the Pirates dugout and smile.

Everyone on the bench knows what will happen next. If the next pitch is another strike, Tabata will pounce and shoot it back up the middle for a hit.

"When Jose is locked in, he's almost able to play around with the pitcher," center fielder Andrew McCutchen said. "It's almost to the point where he's joking. He's that type of player. He's capable of doing some great things."

The thing is, Tabata has yet to do it for a full season. A midseason call-up, he played in 102 games in 2010. Last year injuries limited Tabata to 91 games.

When he finally is able to go start to finish, Tabata could have a breakout year. No one is sure yet just how high his ceiling could be.

"I'm not going to go there," manager Clint Hurdle said. "I just want to see the guy have a full, healthy season. He's got skills. The challenge is to take those skills and transform them into consistent, productive play over a full season. That's the challenge in front of every young player."

Tabata is only 23 years old, but he has packed a lot of experiences — not all good — into the past few years. He has been a rising star and a fallen prospect with the New York Yankees. He learned to fit in with the Pirates' system after being traded. His ex-wife was arrested during spring training in 2009 and later was jailed for abducting an infant. Last season he was shifted from left to right field.

Through it all, Tabata kept flashing glimpses of his potential.

"He's a hard-working guy, and he's very confident," outfielders coach Luis Silverio said. "If he stays healthy, he's going to be an exciting player."

The front office certainly believes in his potential — Tabata signed a $15 million contract extension in August that could keep him in Pittsburgh through 2019.

"The past is the past," Tabata said. "It's a fresh start. I feel more relaxed because I know I'm going to be here for a lot of years. I feel more comfortable, absolutely. I'm ready."

When the Pirates acquired Tabata in 2008, there was a lot of talk about his power potential. He has gone deep just eight times in 739 at-bats, but there is still time for Tabata's home run ability to blossom.

"Remember, he's a young player, and he's still learning what he can do," Silverio said. "Early last year he hit a couple home runs to straightaway center. After that, he started changing his swing a little bit. But he's not that (kind of hitter) yet. He'll get stronger and get better knowledge of the strike zone, then he'll hit for more power."

McCutchen envisions Tabata being a different sort of hitter.

"He is a potential well-over-.300 hitter with a .400 on-base percentage," McCutchen said. "He knows that as the No. 1 or 2 guy (in the batting order), he doesn't need to step into the box trying to hit home runs. He knows his job is to get on base and let the people behind him drive him in."

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