BRADENTON, Fla. -- By August 2011, the Pirates felt they had seen enough.
Shortly after Jose Tabata returned from the disabled list, he and the Pirates agreed to a contract extension. Six years, $15 million guaranteed with three club options, security for Tabata and a financially friendly deal for the team.
Since then, Tabata has not matched his performance in 2010 and early 2011 that made him an attractive extension option. Entering this season, he faces a challenge for playing time, only this year he can't take time to figure it out in the minor leagues.
"I want to be like the Jose that everybody knows," said Tabata, 24, referring to 2010-11. "I know last year was a bad year, but this year is a new year. I feel good right now."
Tabata had a .295 on-base percentage July 1 of last season before the Pirates optioned him to Class AAA Indianapolis, but his offense wasn't the only reason. Tabata looked lost at times in the outfield, taking poor routes to the ball, and was tentative after leg injuries plagued him in 2011.
"He needed to play every day, he needed to get his at-bats," manager Clint Hurdle said. "He needed to get on the bases, he needed to get down the line. I think he found his way back to playing with freedom, not playing to get hurt. He knows if you're going to get hurt, you're going to get hurt."
After Tabata returned to the majors in August, he hit .284 with a .376 on-base percentage in 31 games. His defense improved, as did his at-bats. He was more patient and worked the count.
"From that point, when he got back to us, he was a better player than when he had left," Hurdle said. "It's a fresh start for everybody."
Tabata reached the major leagues in June 2010. He played 102 games, batting .299 with a .346 on-base percentage.
He had a .351 on-base mark through 71 games in 2011 and hit .295 in June before missing almost two months because of a left quadriceps injury. The left leg bothered him again in 2012, contributing to his sluggishness on the bases.
"The other night, he made a play in left field where he flat out went and got a ball," Hurdle said last June. "Then, he hit a ground ball to second and got down in six seconds. That tweaks me a little bit."
This offseason, Tabata trained in Miami, the idea being to improve his agility and lose weight. So for this spring, he has seven hits in 29 at-bats.
"I want to continue to play how I'm playing right now," he said. "Whatever happens, only Clint knows what's going to happen with me."
The Pirates added Tabata to the 40-man roster after the 2008 season to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. He has used all three of his minor league options, meaning the next time the Pirates want to send him to the minors, they have to expose him to waivers.
The lack of options gives Tabata a slight edge over Alex Presley, who has options, to make the team as a backup outfielder. It also means now is the time for Tabata to stick with the club. The team would likely lose him if they waived him, though his contract -- which includes an additional $22.5 million over three team options, with a $250,000 buyout on all three -- means the Pirates likely could trade him if they wanted.
"He'll be the first one to tell you that you don't know how many chances you're going to get," Hurdle said. "We showed our confidence in him in a commitment to him through a contract. He's had some challenges that the game has presented to him. The skill set's still there."
Travis Snider, acquired at the trade deadline last season, will start the majority of games in right field at the beginning of the season, and Starling Marte will start in left. Tabata's playing time will come sporadically, possibly if Hurdle wants to sit Snider against tough left-handers, possibly when Marte, still figuring things out at the major league level, needs a day off.
"I think he understands that this game is a game of second chances," Hurdle said. "Sooner or later you run out of chances."
Bill Brink: email@example.com and on Twitter: @BrinkPG. First Published March 17, 2013 4:30 AM