The return of Fernando Tatis Jr. will undoubtedly give the San Diego Padres a huge boost, especially offensively. However, the team will have to make difficult decisions about where their young risk-taking phenom will play on the field and how to protect him from future injuries.
For the second season in a row, Tatis has been unable to play for extended periods of time. In 2021, the Padres got off to a hot start and looked like contenders until mid-season. No doubt the team missed their dynamic shortstop, who played in only 130 games.
Thanks to a left shoulder subluxation, Tatis Jr. missed time in April, May, and late July. To protect his shoulder, the Padres even moved him to right field. Although medical experts recommended surgery in the offseason, Tatis Jr. opted to rely on exercises to stabilize and strengthen his shoulder.
According to Jim Bowden of @MLBNetworkRadio, “Bob Melvin…told us that Fernando Tatis Jr. will NOT have surgery on his shoulder and instead will play this year as he did last year. The Padres believe his shoulder is as strong as it’s ever been.”
If Tatis Jr. had followed medical advice and opted for surgery, there’s a good chance he would have been rehabbing rather than fooling around on his motorcycle. Unfortunately, he broke his left wrist in a motorcycle accident. Thanks to the lockout, the Padres didn’t learn about the accident until mid-March. To make matters worse, Tatis actually joked about his motorcycle mishaps asking “which one.”
News of the injury had to be especially disturbing to ownership and the front office, as the Padres had signed Tatis Jr. to a mind-boggling $340 million, 14-year contract in February 2021. It’s standard procedure for teams to add caveats to such deals, and Tatis’ contract reportedly included a ban on riding motorcycles. The Padres had every right to void his contract but chose not to penalize him. Instead, A.J. Preller and company chose to work with him. And finally, they may have gotten through to him.
“It’s terrible,” Tatis Jr. recently told reporters. “I feel like everybody’s disappointed, especially me. I feel like we have a pretty good chance this year as a team, and I just want to be out there for my teammates.”
This year especially, the Padres have sorely missed his bat. In his first three seasons, he’s averaged .292/.369/.596/.965, OPS+ 159. Although second in the National League West, the Padres have collectively batted .238/.367/.316/.683.
The entire team, with the exception of Manny Machado and, to a lesser extent Eric Hosmer, has been offensively challenged. Pitching and defense have been the mainstay in the Padres’ 36-22 record–just two games behind the National League West-leading Los Angeles Dodgers (37-21).
However, three lopsided victories in a row indicate the Padres may have actually located their hitting shoes. Earlier in the week, the team had two decisive wins over the powerful New York Mets (7-0 on Tuesday and 13-2 on Wednesday), followed by a 9-0 shellacking of the Colorado Rockies.
No doubt, as Eric Hosmer said recently, “Adding a guy like Fernando is just going to put us on a different level.” But the Padres will have a difficult decision to make when he has been cleared to play. Will he take over for Ha-Seong Kim at short, or will he move to the outfield?
Tatis Jr. has made some spectacular plays at shortstop, but he’s no Ozzie Smith defensively. The stats don’t lie. According to FanGraphs UZR/150, over 2047.0 innings at short from 2019 to 2021, Tatis Jr.’s is a sub-par -8.8, 2020: 2.6, 2021. Likewise his DRS -11.2 2019, -3, 2020 0, -09 2021 does not inspire confidence.
Tatis Jr.’s injury revealed his shortcomings and highlighted the superior play of Ha-Seong Kim: UZR/150 2021 (260 innings) 2.6; 2022 (360 innings) 13.2; DRS 9 2021, 4 2022
Tatis Jr.’s 56.0 innings in center and 151.1 in right prove he may not be a gifted outfielder (yet), but he’s not a liability (0 DRS). With his speed and instincts, he has the ability to become a standout in right or left field.
In the best-case scenario, Tatis Jr. will be cleared to play at the end of this month or early next—and he will return with a new and improved attitude. Machado and other veteran players did not hide their impatience with the young superstar last year. At the ripe old age of 23, Tatis Jr. has what sorely missed Padres announcer Jerry Coleman would call “a golden chance” to be one of the best players and teammates in Major League Baseball.