There’s a notion out and about that open competition exists for the right-field job with the Pirates and that Jaff Decker and Chris Dickerson are involved. Uh, not likely. While all things are possible, it’s hard to envision the circumstances in which the Pirates do not open the season with Travis Snider and Jose Tabata sharing the right-field job and Decker and Dickerson elsewhere.
The Pirates love Snider. They love him so much they took him to arbitration although he batted .226 with an OPS under .640 and a home run every 48 at bats since being acquired from Toronto in July of 2012.
They love him so much -- and this is where it gets unbelievable -- they continued to play him last year, in a pennant race, although a toe injury was affecting his balance and weight transfer, which are kind of important when trying to hit a pitched ball.
As for Tabata, he is coming off the best season of his career and has a $3 million contract for 2014, both of which mean he is not being bypassed by Decker, who has 26 career MLB at bats, or Dickerson, who lacks the power teams want from a corner outfielder and who played his best baseball in 2008 and 2009 with Cincinnati.
The only question open for debate is how the playing time will be shared. The obvious solution is a straight platoon since Snider is a left-handed hitter and Tabata swings righty. It may well come down to that, but such an arrangement gives short shrift to Tabata and the fine season he had in 2013. There are not a lot of left-handed starters in the National League and that’s particularly true in the Central Division where the Pirates play close to half their games.
Further clouding the straight-platoon idea is that Tabata has shown himself to be player who in not greatly affected by which arm the pitcher is using. Last season, for example, he had a .778 OPS vs. right-handers and a .742 vs. left-handers. His career numbers are better vs. lefties, but not by much.
Making the platoon idea even murkier is that Snider’s career OPS vs. right-handers is 95 points lower than Tabata’s.
Then there's this: Snider’s ceiling is higher than Tabata’s and possibly by a large amount. Snider was once a top power prospect with the Toronto Blue Jays. Too good, in fact, because he was rushed to MLB -- 64 Class AAA at bats -- and that might be the source of his failures thus far. In 1,347 plate appearances -- 1,117 while facing right-handers -- he has a .701 OPS and a home run every 36 at bats. That’s simply not good enough for a corner outfielder.
The Pirates will give Snider a large opportunity this season. If he seizes it, the job vs. right-handers is his and premier prospect Gregory Polanco might have to wait until September or next season to make his debut. If Snider falters again, Tabata will get more playing time and Polanco could be on his way.
It’s a big year, too, for Tabata, who, after early raves, has mainly projected as a fourth outfielder. He doesn’t have the defense for center nor the power for left or right field. But when he received a substantial opportunity late last season, with both Snider and Starling Marte on the disabled list, he excelled. His OPS for 157 at bats in August and September was close to .850.
In all likelihood, manager Clint Hurdle will play right field on a game-by-game basis making certain both players get their opportunities.
There's no disputing that the job some day belongs to Polanco. But in the best possible baseball world, he’ll spend most of 2014 at Indianapolis because Snider and Tabata play well enough to keep him there.
It could happen.