Return of El Niño: Fernando Tatis Jr. back as Padres need spark

San Diego Padres superstar Fernando Tatis Jr. plays with the El Paso Chihuahuas during his rehab assignment as he gets ready to return to Major League Baseball on April 11, 2023. Tatis Jr Baseball Chihuahuas52

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Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Fernando Tatis Jr. is set to make his return on Thursday in Arizona, and not a moment too soon for the Padres.

At long last, after 564 long days, Fernando Tatis Jr. will return to a major league lineup.

It has not been an easy journey for Tatis and Padres fans. Just about every emotion possible was experienced over the last 18 months. Between him showing up to Spring Training in 2022 with a broken wrist from a motorcycle accident to being suspended 80 games after testing positive for Clostebol and the criticism that rained down on him, it has been tough. He missed the entire 2022 season, one whole year of his athletic prime.

It has been a long, difficult road. Now, eyes move to the direction ahead, not back, in hopes that Tatis can reclaim his pre-2022 form and also rebuild his image. That will not happen overnight. To some, it may never happen. Likely for the rest of his career, or at least for the next several years, Tatis will be met with boos and jeers from opposing fans. Comments online will be nasty and hurtful under any public post regarding the two-time Silver Slugger.

If you are a Padres fan, good advice would be to stay away from the comments section for a while. That is a shift from when, even as an opponent, fans could not help but marvel at the phenomenon that was El Niño pre-2022.

Let’s not forget in the last two seasons in which Tatis participated, 2020 and 2021; he finished no worse than fourth in NL MVP voting. He led the NL with 42 homers in 2022 and turned in one of the best single seasons in Padres franchise history. Between 2020 and 2021, no other player in MLB had more than 10.0 fWAR except Tatis. Since 2020 all the way up to today, Tatis still ranks 14th in the NL in fWAR. That is with him having missed the entire 2022 season and all of 2023 so far. He was the face of baseball.

If Tatis can reclaim any sort of form similar to that, most fans will begin again to marvel at his talent instead of focus on his previous shortcomings off the field. He certainly has given the world a tasty appetizer during his brief stint with Triple-A El Paso as he readied for his reinstatement. In eight games with the El Paso Chihuahuas, he put up numbers that are difficult to achieve even with a controller playing MLB The Show: .515 average, 1.802 OPS, and seven home runs. That includes six homers in his final three games.

He seems ready.

You know who else is ready for his return? The San Diego Padres. The Friars have been nothing short of lifeless at the plate for the majority of the young season. They rank 28th in batting average,  21st in OPS and on-base percentage, 24th in runs per game, and have a below-average 93 OPS+. Additionally, the Padres just went through a stretch of back-to-back shutouts at home. The main stars aren’t hitting. If there was a contending team that needed a jolt and fast, it’s the Padres.

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The next step is to log games and help the Padres win on the field.

Now, it’s just about baseball. Instead of wondering when and if Tatis will ever return to the Padres, it’s now about how fast he can help this putrid offense turn it around. It’s no longer about his health. No more press conferences addressing off-field issues. It’s time for baseball. Tatis will likely bat leadoff to try and set the table for the other trio of stars in Juan Soto, Manny Machado, and Xander Bogaerts. The Padres lineup gets instantly deeper than almost any other team. Perhaps, finally, they will play like it.

If Tatis returns with a similar furor he unleashed on the poor, helpless pitchers in Triple-A, the Padres will be over the moon. Fans will be reinvigorated after a maddening start. This team needs a jolt of energy. Good thing Tatis is basically the human embodiment of it.

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