Spring training: Tabata has Pirates close to heart

Clemente fan as a child, he now is one of team's top three prospects

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BRADENTON, Fla. -- In an era when young baseball players the world over grow up wanting to play for the New York Yankees, Jose Tabata was a Yankee who kept the Pirates close to his heart.

One of the Pirates, anyway.

Ask him how he feels about attending his first major league camp, and this supremely talented 20-year-old Venezuelan abandons his halting English, smiles and pulls down his jersey collar to reveal a tattoo on his left chest bearing an image of Roberto Clemente.

A Spanish inscription above it reads, "For my father," as translated. His father was a Clemente fan, and it was passed along. And last year, his wife Mayita, a Puerto Rican as was Clemente, met Vera Clemente, Roberto's wife, as part of her job.

"Do you believe that?" Tabata said, smiling.

The most surprising was still to come: In July, the Yankees traded Tabata, who had entered 2008 as their No. 3 prospect according to Baseball America, to the Pirates -- along with three others -- for outfielder Xavier Nady.

"Now, I'm a Pirate," Tabata said. "It feels good. It feels like family. My father used to tell me, 'You need to be like Roberto.' Now, I wear the uniform."

Not just yet, actually. He is ticketed for Class AA Altoona, mostly because the Pirates do not want two center fielders at Class AAA Indianapolis, where Andrew McCutchen should start out. But it surely will not be long until Tabata reaches Pittsburgh.

For all the focus on McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez, the Pirates' almost universally accepted top two prospects, those inside the organization -- and some outside it -- are of the view that Tabata ranks right there in potential.

"Yes, Tabata belongs in the conversation with Alvarez and McCutchen," said Kyle Stark, the Pirates' director of player development. "All three are consistently rated among the 75-100 best prospects in the game, and that is even with Tabata's performance in 2008."

Well, there is that.

Tabata experienced the first significant step backward in his career in '08, batting .248 with 3 home runs in 79 games for Class AA Trenton, roughly 60 points below his career average.

Worse, he let it get to him. In an April 27 game, he was so furious about a strikeout that he slammed his bat to the dirt, stormed through the dugout and left the stadium. The Yankees suspended him. Then, a hamstring injury cost him all of July.

"It was hard for me," Tabata said. "With the Yankees, it felt like there was not so much opportunity. The change was good."

The "change" was the July 26 trade that ultimately saw him sent to Altoona, where he immediately re-established his elite status with a .348 average, 3 home runs and 13 RBIs in 22 games, all while playing a far better center field than should be expected of someone a thick 5 feet 11, 215 pounds.

By all accounts, the character issue never was revived, either.

"Jose was a quality person and teammate in Altoona," Stark said. "He was reliable -- as a person and as a competitor -- which is what we ask for from our players."

"Maybe I grew up a little," Tabata said.

This spring, Tabata's first in a major league camp, has been mixed.

He has drawn raves from team officials, notably manager John Russell, for the booming sound of his bat, powered by tree-trunk arms and a remarkable torque to the swing.

"Tabata does have some tools and abilities not many other players have," Stark said, "including very good bat speed, a feel for hitting, an advanced approach, good instincts, a quiet confidence and solid defensive abilities. It's an intriguing mix."

On the down side, Tabata has been limited to six Grapefruit League plate appearances -- no hits, three walks -- by a sore right shoulder that shut him down earlier this week. He was back in uniform yesterday but might not see more action until assigned to minor league camp.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Pirates updates, your comments and more ... join the PBC blog . First Published March 7, 2009 5:00 AM


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