(In addition to appearing at The Captain’s Blog, this post is also being syndicated at TheYankeeAnalysts.)
One of the most exciting young players in the game today is Jose Tabata. However, because he plays in the relative obscurity of Pittsburgh, it’s likely that more than a few casual fans don’t even know his name.
Over the first two weeks of the season, Tabata has displayed an athletic blend of power and speed, giving Pittsburgh two of the most promising young outfielders in the game. Although fellow wunderkind Andrew McCutchen has deservingly garnered much of the spotlight to date, if the Pirates’ left fielder can maintain his steady improvement, he’ll quickly become a household name as well.
Tabata may not be well known around the league, but many Yankee fans are already very familiar with the young outfielder, who is playing in his seventh professional season. In fact, to those who have been following his career since he was signed by the Yankees in 2005 as a 16-year old out of Anzoategui, Venezuela, Tabata probably seems like a grizzled veteran. Unfortunately, familiarity can often breed contempt, and that perception is likely what prevented him from breaking into the big leagues wearing pinstripes.
The Emergence of Jose Tabata
Immediately upon signing, Tabata quickly established himself as one of the Yankees’ top prospects. After only one year in the organization, the then 17-year old outfielder joined Phil Hughes as an untouchable, but that didn’t stop most teams from asking for him in trade proposals. In story after story, Tabata’s name was floated in various rumored deals, but each time, the Yankees held their ground. It was even reported that Brian Cashman would not part with Tabata in the Johan Santana deal, which illustrated the Yankees’ high regard for the outfielder. However, all that changed in 2008.
Still only 19 years old, Tabata began to show signs of immaturity, which one might expect from a young kid who was thrown into an adult world at such an early age. As a result, not only did he struggle mightily at double-A Trenton, but his behavior also started to raise eyebrows. In one incident, Tabata was suspended for three games after he abruptly left the stadium following a bad game. Then, a few weeks later, the outfielder was disciplined for engaging in a shouting match with a teammate. In addition to his struggles and behavioral issues, Tabata also had to battle a serious hamstring injury, so, in just about every regard, 2008 was a season of discontent. Even worse, it left the impression that Tabata might be a malcontent. Amid whispers about his mental makeup, Tabata’s star, which had been on the ascendant, was now quickly dimming.
The Yankees eventually cut the cord with Tabata before the trade deadline in 2008. Desperately in need of another bat as well as a lefty reliever, the team sent a package of prospects including Tabata to Pittsburghfor Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte. Only months earlier, it would have been unthinkable to trade Tabata for anything less than a star player, but in the intervening months, the Yankees’ opinion of the young prospect had clearly changed.
Those who liked the Yankees’ acquisition of Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte essentially expressed the view that the Yanks addressed two areas of extreme need – a righty-hitting corner outfield bat and a top lefty reliever – without surrendering a substantial package. An NL scout who covers the Yankees went as far as to say, “I don’t think the Yankees gave up anything.” –Joel Sherman, New York Post, July 27, 2008
After the deal was consummated, “anonymous sources” used the opportunity to pile on Tabata. A New York Post headline blared, “Go ‘Way, Jose – Experts Fear Tabata’s More Fool Than Jewel”. When the outfielder began the 2009 season recounting a tale about how his 43-year old wife had concealed an extensive criminal history and presented an abducted child as their own, it seemed as if the Yankees had made the right decision in parting ways with the troubled teen. Soon thereafter, however, Tabata once again began to let his talent do the talking. Now, everyone is listening to the loud sounds coming off his bat instead of the quiet whispers from behind his back.
If Tabata continues to fulfill his promise, the 2008 trade that sent him to Pittsburgh could go down as one of the most lopsided in Yankees’ history. Not only did the Bronx Bombers wind up missing the playoffs in 2008, but both Nady and Marte, whom the Yankees resigned to an extension, spent more time on the DL than the field. The only redeeming value for the Yankees was Marte’s dominant performance in the 2009 post season, but even that contribution pales in comparison to the potential that lies ahead for Tabata.
The Yankees have a pretty good track record when it comes to trading away prospects. With all the deals they have made for established veterans, very few youngsters have come back to haunt the team. Lately, however, that perception seems to be changing. Along with Tabata, players like Austin Jackson, Mark Melancon and Ian Kennedy have had a positive impact in the majors, but the Pirates’ left fielder is the one who seems poised to be a major source of regret. Why? Because the Yankees never gave up on Tabata’s talent. Instead, it seems as if their willingness to part with the young outfielder was the result of concerns about his “makeup”.
An important lesson can be learned from the Yankees’ relationship with Tabata. When drafting adolescent talent, there has to be an allowance for emotional growing pains. Just because a teenager has big league talent doesn’t mean he has big league maturity. It’s too late for Tabata, but the Yankees can apply that lesson to another young prospect: Jesus Montero.
Like Tabata, the Yankees’ signed Montero as a 16-year old out of Venezuela. Continuing the parallel, Montero quickly emerged as the team’s top prospect, but then encountered struggles and behavioral issues around the age of 20. The circle was almost completed when the Yankees agreed to send the young catcher to the Mariners in a trade for Cliff Lee. Fortunately for the Yankees, however, the Mariners’ decision to back out of the deal granted them a reprieve from repeating the same mistake (which, admittedly, in this case would have at least netted a prime talent).
It remains to be seen whether Montero will develop into a star, but if the Yankees opt against giving him a chance, one can only hope that decision will be based on talent alone. After Montero’s struggles in spring training, whispers about flaws in his mental approach began to resurface, leading some to believe that the Yankees had missed their best chance to trade the young catcher. Hopefully. Brian Cashman doesn’t feel the same way. The Yankees already made that mistake with Tabata. If it happens a second time, shame on them.