BRADENTON, Fla. -- Jose Tabata has a lightning-quick bat and a keen eye for hitting.
And the 22-year-old left fielder from Venezuela is feeling more and more comfortable hitting from the leadoff spot, where he batted .255 last season as a rookie. Tabata hit .328 in 66 games from the No. 2 spot and .125 in limited at-bats hitting No. 3.
"I feel comfortable leading off, but I will do whatever they want," Tabata said. "If they say lead off, I'll be there. If they say bat second or third, I want to do whatever I can to help my team."
Tabata batted .299 in 102 games for the Pirates a year ago. He scored 61 runs, had a team-high 31 infield hits, and collected 21 doubles, 4 triples and 35 RBIs. He also swiped 19 bases. He had 93 of his 121 hits after the All-Star break, the second most in the National League, and his .322 average after the break was seventh best.
"I really like his approach leading off," manager Clint Hurdle said. "He's shown some discipline. He's had some walks. He can hit the ball the other way. He's a contact hitter. You can use him to hit and run. You can use him various ways. He's got speed when he gets on."
If Tabata continues to thrive in that role, it would enable the Pirates to bat center fielder Andrew McCutchen third. McCutchen batted .278 in 82 games from the leadoff spot last season and .302 in 52 games from the third spot.
"[Jose's] a guy that would enable us to make that move, no doubt," Hurdle said.
"I don't want to juggle. I want to try and find something that works and submit to it for a period of time and let it play out."
Tabata has not yet displayed the home run power many scouts thought he would when the New York Yankees signed him to his first professional free-agent contract on his 16th birthday.
He hit just four home runs in 405 at-bats last season and has 29 homers in 1,866 minor league plate appearances.
"Everybody who talks about me says, `No power,' " Tabata said. "I don't want to change my swing. I want to be consistent. I think the power may come sometime. Who knows? A couple more home runs, you never know."
Tabata, 5 feet 11 and 219 pounds, entered last season ranked as the No. 2 prospect in the Pirates organization by Baseball America, and the publication rated him the best hitter for average in the minor league system.
"He reminds me a lot of Manny Ramirez," said right fielder Matt Diaz, who spent the past five seasons with the Atlanta Braves before signing a two-year, $4.25 million free-agent deal with the Pirates in the offseason.
"I don't know if Jose will be as good as Manny, but he hits the ball to all fields. He can hit with power. He can drive in runs. He can put on a show."
Tabata made 92 starts in left field and nine in center for the Pirates.
"Jose has played extensively in center field in his minor league career for us," general manager Neal Huntington said. "He's played left. He's also played right. He's got a complete comfort level at all three outfield spots."
Overall, Tabata has hit .304 with 17 home runs and 109 RBIs in 274 games since joining the organization July 26, 2008, as part of the trade involving Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte.
In addition to Tabata, the Pirates also received Jeff Karstens, Ross Ohlendorf and Daniel McCutchen from the Yankees.
"I'm trying to be as consistent as I can be every day," Tabata said. "I want to help the team any way I can. I am working on everything.
"I am trying to get everything in place before the season starts."
• Right-handed starting pitcher James McDonald, expected to be a key piece to the rotation, will miss a spring training start. McDonald left Friday's game in the third inning with discomfort in his left side.
• Pitchers Jeff Locke, Aaron Thompson and Ramon Aguero were optioned to Class AA Altoona. Pitchers Daniel Moskos and Tony Watson, and outfielders Gorkys Hernandez and Alex Presley were optioned to Class AAA Indianapolis. Infielders Chase d'Arnaud and Brian Friday and outfielder Andrew Lambo were reassigned to minor league camp. There are now 44 players remaining in big league camp.
• The Pirates lost 8-2 to Baltimore yesterday in Sarasota, Fla. Starting pitcher Kevin Correia worked five innings and gave up four earned runs. Left-handed pitchers Joe Beimel (forearm) and Scott Olsen (hamstring), battling back from injuries, each saw their first action of spring and yielded solo home runs. Pedro Ciriaco, Andrew McCutchen, Steve Pearce and Jason Jaramillo each collected two hits.
Staff writer Colin Dunlap contributed to this report.