BRADENTON, Fla. -- It is tougher to get into Clint Hurdle's doghouse than into Augusta National Golf Club. He is what they call a players' manager, and a very patient one, at that.
But last season, Jose Tabata managed to try that patience, and found himself in that doghouse, as well as Triple-A Indianapolis. For a young Major League veteran, hard to say which is worse. But neither is very good.
Upper-leg injuries contributed to Tabata's disappointing 2012, but they didn't get the outfielder off the hook. A lack of conditioning was seen as a contributor to the injuries, and when Tabata tried to silently play through them, what resulted was an apparent lack of effort and hustle.
As a result, Tabata has come to a premature career crossroads. Not many 24-year-olds with potentially seven years -- and $35 million -- remaining on their contracts have to work their way out of such a long shadow.
"I don't want to say it's a big year for me," Tabata said Monday morning, before taking the field for regular workouts -- but already after an extended stint in an indoor batting cage. "I just feel a lot better about everything. We'll see what happens. There were a lot of frustrations last year, but today is a new day.
"Last year was just a bad year. I didn't feel too good. The leg, the weight ... I did a lot of hard work this offseason. I feel better."
And lighter. Tabata estimates having dropped about 10 pounds. Getting in better shape was his mandate from Pirates brass, which disallowed his usual participation in Venezuela Winter League.
Tabata hopes he is better prepared to recapture his game, and that he hasn't lost his place in line for an outfield job. There is a bevy of candidates to flank center fielder Andrew McCutchen, and if Starling Marte fulfills his destiny in left, they'll all trickle over into right field: Alex Presley, Travis Snider, Garrett Jones, Jerry Sands, as well as non-roster veterans Brad Hawpe and Felix Pie.
"There's a lot of guys here," said Tabata, who less than two years ago was the guy.
He'd made his debut on June 9, 2010 -- a week before Pedro Alvarez appeared for his first Major League game -- and finished that rookie season batting .299. The ensuing season, Tabata flashed enough of his upside for general manager Neal Huntington to sign him to a six-year contract extension on Aug. 21.
Tabata was set. He was earmarked to be part of the core that would lift the Pirates out of the abyss. Instead, he has hit .246 since signing that pact, and is on the periphery.
Jeff Branson, the big club's new assistant hitting coach, believes Tabata will re-enter orbit. Last season, Branson served as hitting coach at Indy, meaning he became Tabata's Yoda when he and his .230 average were returned to the Minors in early July.
"He was able to work on timing consistency without as much pressure," Branson recalled. "He was really able to focus on how his hands and his body were working, in an atmosphere where you're not as publicly scrutinized.
"He came down with the mindset 'I'm here with a purpose, to get it all back,' and worked his butt off. The biggest thing was to simplify everything that he did, to get his confidence back. He did a really good job."
It was more than an overnight stay. More like an over-a-month stay. But in 41 games with the Indians, Tabata hit .297 while making consistent contact, with only 20 strikeouts in 158 at-bats.
After rejoining the Pirates on Aug. 19 -- ironically, nearly on the second anniversary of that long-term contract -- Tabata batted .284 in 31 games. So that was a start.
"I came in with the right attitude," he said, "and I'll continue to work hard. I'm confident things will work out."
"I love him," Branson said. "Anytime you get a player put forth that effort, you'll stick with him."
When camp opened, so did Hurdle's mind, as far as Tabata is concerned.
"He just has the freedom to not hold anything back, without fear of revisiting those tweaks he had last year," Hurdle said. "I'm extremely encouraged by what he's done in the offseason."
That included not being dismayed by all the trade rumors, which clearly won't die down as long as the Pirates have such a logjam at his position.
"I heard a lot of talk of a trade, and you never know what happens," said Tabata, whose six-year contract includes three option years that would pay him a total of $22.5 million -- yet could be bought out for $250,000. "I like Pittsburgh and I want to stay here. But I also want to stay in the big leagues, so whatever happens will be fine."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.