Last spring, during the anticipatory lull before the seemingly inevitable coronation of Gregory Polanco, the Pirates entrusted right field duties to a pair of former AL East prospects: Jose Tabata and Travis Snider.
Tabata, a putatively 25-year-old slap hitter, had just posted a .282/.342/.429 batting line during the Pirates' magical 2013 season. Snider, in contrast, had performed miserably since his acquisition from the Blue Jays, hitting just .215/.281/.333 in 2013 while battling a toe injury.
Roughly a year later, their respective fortunes have reversed. Snider, since traded to Baltimore for pitching prospects, resurrected his career with a strong 2014, while Tabata was DFA'd and demoted to AAA, and did not appear in a major league game until yesterday.
Since Tabata's fall from grace, we as fans seem to hold as articles of faith that Tabata's contract is an albatross, that he is worthless, and that we'd be better off trading him for whatever cost savings we can. As one of the first significant pieces acquired by Neal Huntington, it feels as though he's been around forever, and the promise of his early-career prospect-dom has faded into a mediocre present. Jose Tabata's career has been like going on a blind date with your buddy's 'really cool' friend and discovering that, while she seems like a generally nice person, she also spent 20 minutes during the appetizer portion of the meal rhapsodizing about the particular shade of off-white she'd selected for her living room furniture. It's easy to feel a bit disappointed.
To those convinced of Tabata's uselessness, I would submit by way of rebuttal the ZiPS/Steamer blended rest-of-season hitting projections for Tabata and his competition:
Jose Tabata: .272/.327/.369, 95 wRC+
Corey Hart: .247/.305/.401, 95 wRC+
Sean Rodriguez: .244/.300/.395, 93 wRC+
Andrew Lambo: .237/.291/.409, 92 wRC+
Jaff Decker: .228/.304/.356, 84 wRC+
Tony Sanchez: .225/.290/.357, 81 wRC+
Steve Lombardozzi: .263/.299/.340, 77 wRC+
The Pirates' current bench options are unlikely to be mistaken for the 1927 Yankees. Few benches are, these days--most guys capable of substantially above-average hitting performance tend to earn starting jobs. Several of these players, fortunately, contribute something beyond their decidedly uninspiring offense--Rodriguez and Lombardozzi both bring versatility, Decker is a plus defensive outfielder, and Tony Sanchez is a catcher. The Pirates also employ several guys (Tabata, Hart, Lambo) whose defensive deficiencies would appear to render them incapable of making major contributions should their offensive performance tend toward the Mendozan rather than the Ruthian.
What's become clear in light of the recent debate over Corey Hart's role and the advisability of platooning Polanco is that the Pirates basically have three non-concrete bench spots.
The following players are, presumably, guaranteed a role:
C Francisco Cervelli
C Chris Stewart
1B Pedro Alvarez
2B Neil Walker
SS Jordy Mercer
SS Jung-Ho Kang
3B Josh Harrison
LF Starling Marte
CF Andrew McCutchen
RF Gregory Polanco
That's ten guys. The final three spots are currently occupied by Tabata, Hart, and Rodriguez. I think Rodriguez is safe--he's a capable defender who can spell several positions, and it's not clear that he's substantively worse on offense than Tabata or Hart.
After including Rodriguez, we're down to two spots, both of whom would ideally be solid pinch-hitters. So assuming the resurgent health of Lambo and Decker, who do you pick? The Pirates opted for Hart and Lambo to start the season, with Hart platooning with Alvarez and Lambo serving as the principal pinch-hitting threat. Lambo and Decker are both lefties, and you'd think Hurdle would want at least one left-handed option of the bench.
Hart's general ineffectiveness, however, may have opened the door for Tabata to contribute to the 2015 club even if there is only one spot for a right-handed pinch-hitter. Hart is statuesque in the field, and while Tabata is no Willie Mays, he's at least capable of standing in a corner without hemorrhaging runs.
ZiPS also doesn't know anything about Hart's injuries--all it knows is that he was once quite good, didn't play in 2013, and has been catastrophic ever since (he hit .203/.271/.319 last year). I don't want to put too much weight on 30-odd plate appearances this season, but there's a non-negligible chance that Hart is pretty much done.
Tabata still has flaws--he pounds the ball into the ground too much, has little power, and his speed and defense have both slipped--but if any part of his AAA plate discipline is for real he's probably one of our best 25 players right now.
There would be a certain poetic justice if Tabata returned from his banishment to serve as a credible bench bat this year--due to the weakness of the Pirates' other options, it's perfectly plausible that this could end up happening.