Since he landed in San Diego in July 2016, Fernando Tatis Jr. has had a wild ride.
In a short period of time, he has fallen from fabulous phenom to a chastened cheater. However, when he finally joins the team next year, he will have the opportunity to return to phenom status–and help the Padres reach the playoffs again.
Tatis Jr. made his major league debut in March of 2019 and contributed to a 2-0 defeat of the San Francisco Giants and Madison Bumgarner. The following year he placed fourth in MVP voting, right behind teammate Manny Machado. In 2021, he batted a hefty .282/.364/.611/.975 and led the Padres in OPS+ at 166, followed by Manny Machado (131), Jake Cronenworth (122), and Wil Myers (113).
However, injuries and an 80-game suspension for using a banned substance kept Tatis Jr. off the field for the entire 2022 season. He’s the 58th player to be banned for 50 games since the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment program was enacted in 2005. Thanks to injuries and the suspension, he’s played in just 273 of a possible 579 regular season games.
Tatis Jr. has missed large chunks of time due to various ailments. In his first year, he experienced a stress reaction in his back and appeared in just 84 games. He left the field with a batting line of .317/.379/.590 and twenty-two home runs. In the pandemic-shortened year, a relatively healthy Tatis hit seventeen home runs and helped the Padres to their first playoff appearance since 2006.
The Padres rewarded him with a 14-year contract worth $340 million in early 2021. Before the ink had dried, he had to leave a spring training game after he suffered a second shoulder injury in a short period of time. Early in the regular season, a torn labrum in his shoulder shut him down again. Then in May, a bout of Covid also interrupted his season.
Just two weeks later, he again left a game after jamming his troublesome shoulder. Although team officials assumed he would have surgery on the shoulder in the offseason, Tatis Jr. refused. Worse, he broke his wrist riding a (forbidden) motorcycle late in 2021. Unfortunately, the lockout kept the team in the dark about the injury until March. Shortly before his scheduled return in August, the Padres received the confounding news that he’d been suspended.
“A little bummed, a little pissed…” Musgrove said. “You can say he’s a young kid, and he’s going to learn his lessons or whatnot. But ultimately, I think you’ve got to start showing a little bit of that remorse and showing us that you’re committed to it and that you want to be here.”
“Very disappointed,” Clevinger told the press. “The second time we’ve been disappointed with him. You hope he grows up and learns from this and learns it’s about more than just him.”
We will never know how far the Padres could have gone this year had Tatis Jr. put the team first. Defense and pitching propelled the Padres to the playoffs while the offense struggled mightily. Although Machado kept the team afloat offensively, slashing .298/,355/.531/.898, OPS+ 159, Tatis Jr.’s bat could have helped him carry that burden. Over his brief career, he’s batted .292/.369/.596/.955 with an OPS+ of 160.
Remorse has not been one of Tatis Jr.’s strong points. In fact, he joked about his motorcycle mishap (or mishaps) to the press shortly after the Padres learned of his injured wrist.
However, the fact that Tatis Jr. finally chose to follow the team doctors’ recommendations indicates an important change in attitude. In the past, he’s insisted he belongs at shortstop, but he’s backed off that position. Defensive metrics reveal that he is actually a liability at the position. Thanks to his absence, the Padres got a full look at Ha-Seong Kim at short, who outplayed Tatis Jr. defensively.
“He (Kim) definitely showed he can play shortstop every day in the big leagues,” A. J. Preller, the Padres president of baseball operations, said recently.
Manager Bob Melvin also highly praised Kim, calling him a “stabilizing force” and “a fantastic shortstop.” Obviously, Kim will again play short at the beginning of the season thanks to Tatis Jr.’s suspension. When he finally returns, the Padres will have to make a decision about where he should play on the diamond.
More important though is he attitude of the young star. Will Fernando Gabriel Tatis Medina Jr., aka El Nino, become a team player? He’s been afflicted with a me-first attitude, which isn’t surprising as he’s been a star from an early age in San Pedro de Macoris–where baseball rules.
“A lot’s been put on his plate at a young age; he’s handled a lot of it,” Preller has remarked. “Now, these last couple of situations, he’s got to learn from. But at the end of the day, it’s one thing to say it. You’ve got to start showing it by your actions.”
Fernando Tatis Jr. has the advantage of a contract that lasts through 2034 and gives him plenty of time to grow up and to live up to his potential. His decision to trust the doctors and undergo surgeries on his wrist and shoulder indicates a sea change in attitude and action.
“The team managed the drama and some of the stuff that revolved around the Fernando situation and handled it really well,” Melvin said. “And [Tatis] handled it well, as far as when he came back and spoke about it. From that point on, we’ve just kind of moved on and kind of felt his support. I text with him kind of every other day or so, and he’s very supportive right now.”
For the first time since 1998, the Padres reached the National League Championship Series after defeating the New York Mets 2-1 and their nemesis, the Los Angeles Dodgers, 3-1. When he returns early next season, Fernando Tatis Jr. could be instrumental in following up on that success and even reaching the ultimate goal of the World Series.