Talented Tabata a work in progress
Sky is the limit for gifted 18-year-old Yankees outfield prospect
TAMPA, Fla. -- At first glance, Jose Tabata blended in with the roughly 11 dozen Minor Leaguers roaming the back fields on Himes Avenue, jogging across diamonds carrying their gloves, bats and big-league dreams.
Upon closer inspection, the Yankees' touted Venezuelan outfield prospect reveals himself to be a cut above. Tabata is just 18 years old, but everything about his muscular build and the decibel level of each batting practice stroke seems to scream "Yankee Stadium."
"I leave everything in God's hands," Tabata said through an interpreter. "If I keep improving and keep doing what I've been doing, hopefully in two or three years, I would love to be there. If I stay healthy, I believe I am capable of making it."
Ranked as the Yankees' No. 2 prospect by Baseball America entering this season -- behind only right-hander Phil Hughes -- Tabata spent three weeks as a non-roster invitee to Major League camp before being reassigned to Minor League camp on Tuesday.
His presence was noticeable, chatting with established stars like Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, taking advantage of the opportunity to soak up their knowledge. Assigned a locker next to fellow Venezuelan Bobby Abreu, Tabata spoke often in Spanish with the veteran outfielder, whom he grew up watching on television from time to time.
"It's an amazing thing," Tabata said. "I've been watching him all these years and I never imagined being next to him in a locker. I thank God for this opportunity that the Yankees have given me.
"Bobby has taught me how to be patient and to just do what I can do. Don't try to do extra, because when you try to do too much, that's when mistakes come."
Tabata has made relatively few to this point. Signed by the Yankees on his 16th birthday, Tabata served three stints on the disabled list last season with an injured thumb, though he finished batting .298 with 22 doubles, five home runs and 51 RBIs at Class A Charleston.
A South Atlantic League All-Star, his performance included a string of 24 straight games in which he reached base, 15 stolen bases in 20 attempts and a selection to the All-Star Futures Game in Pittsburgh.
Tabata said that he had just returned from the South Atlantic League festivities in Eastlake, Ohio, when a Charleston Riverdogs official told him that he'd been summoned to PNC Park to play for the World team.
Tabata thought the notification was some sort of practical joke and didn't believe the official until the original letter and its plane ticket could be retrieved.
"[I was] real surprised," Tabata said. "I wasn't expecting to be there."
In nine Grapefruit League games for New York this spring, Tabata amassed a gaudy .462 batting average, stroking six hits in 13 at-bats while hitting a home run and driving in two runs.
The long ball came off Jeff Harris in the ninth inning of a loss to the Cleveland Indians on Sunday, an opposite-field blast over the right-field wall that served as a microcosm of Tabata's power potential.
"He just swings the bat and has the ability to hit the ball deep both ways," said manager Joe Torre. "He's just a baby. There's a lot of raw talent there that we're certainly aware of.
"We just hope he progresses the way he should, basically. It's all about working and not trying to rush it, because it's going to take its time."
Tabata is scheduled to open the 2007 season at Class A Tampa in the Florida State League, and Yankees officials have said that there is no reason to rush him to higher levels. His development and production will set the pace for his progression toward the Major Leagues, but Tabata clearly has a timetable in mind for moving up to the Bronx.
"I'm going to work hard and put into practice everything that I learned here, so I can keep moving up," Tabata said. "Hopefully I will go to Double-A and keep going up. That's what all the players want."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.