The Pirates' Opening Day outfield is set in the sense that top prospect Gregory Polanco has already been optioned back to the minors. It's not set in stone, however, as the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Rob Biertempfel reports that starting right fielder Jose Tabata is on the trade block.
Tabata was quietly productive at the plate in 2013, batting .282/.342/.429 despite the Pirates playing their home games in pitcher-friendly PNC. That line translates to a well above-average 119 OPS+, but it's also a little deceiving. Tabata played in just 106 games and amassed all of 341 plate appearances thanks to time missed with an abdomen strain, and once again did not score well on advanced defensive metrics. He wasn't bad, but he is a poor defender and isn't an ideal fit for a platoon role given that and his ho-hum career numbers against lefties.
The Pirates, or any number of teams really, could stomach someone like Tabata in a corner outfield spot, since he rounds out to about an average player when things go well for him offensively, as they did in 2013. He's just been about average at the plate overall in his career, however, and that's an issue when combined with his defense, especially when someone like Polanco is waiting around for his turn in the majors. If Polanco wasn't there, it would be easy to sit and hope Tabata has another 2013 in him, but when your replacement is ranked 10th on Baseball America's top prospect list, and Tabata is just one year removed from a disappointing campaign, you can afford to see if anyone else will bite on him.
Polanco has the glove and range for center, but his arm is rated as plus, making him a fit for right field. There are questions about whether his lanky frame and occasionally long swing will ever hit for serious big-league power, but his ceiling is much higher than Tabata's, and even a middling rookie performance at the plate might do the trick when combined with the defensive upgrade he would bring over the 25-year-old. Baseball America describes him as "an impact player for many years to come" once he puts the finishing touches on his development in the minors, and the thought of having Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco roaming the outfield is wondrous enough that putting Tabata on the market is an easy decision, even coming off of a quality year.
It's unclear just what the Pirates would get for Tabata, or even what they need at the moment, besides maybe a catcher with Chris Stewart needing knee surgery. Tabata is owed another $12.25 million over the next three years, which isn't much unless he reverts to his 2012 form and becomes a waste of both money and a roster spot. His career numbers and strong 2013 should ease fears of that possibility, though, especially if the Pirates' asking price isn't absurd. They don't have to move him, though, to open up a spot for Polanco. Neither Travis Ishikawa nor Josh Harrison, the two outfielders on the bench, are inspiring, and while Tabata is a poor fit on the bench as someone lacking exploitable splits and a worthwhile defensive presence, he's certainly a better option than they are. Polanco might misfire in his debut campaign, too, and sans Tabata, the Pirates would either be left with keeping the 22-year-old Polanco in the majors until he figures it out, or playing someone inferior to both him and Tabata. The Pirates could rely on Andrew Lambo or former Padres prospect Jaff Decker as corner depth instead, though, so it's not an entirely lost cause should the worst case occur and Polanco isn't ready while Tabata is elsewhere.
In a winter where the Pirates did little to improve their chances by losing out on A.J. Burnett, trying to set themselves up for Polanco in right to improve the defense and possibly the offense as well makes the most sense. If they can net something they need for Tabata in the process while clearing up a few million per year from the budget, even better. The priority should be Polanco, though, and if Tabata ends up sticking in Pittsburgh despite the attempts to shop him, the Pirates will likely go ahead with their future in right anyway.