The Padres need to bridge the gap between the start of the season and Fernando Tatis Jr.‘s eventual reinstatement. Who should shoulder the load in the outfield?
Fernando Tatis Jr. is slated to play right field for the Padres this season. By all accounts, given his elite athleticism, he should slide into the role of outfielder rather smoothly after being a shortstop for basically all of his professional career beforehand. In any case, he cannot return to the Padres lineup in a regular season game until April 20. What are the Padres going to do in right field for those 20 games until he returns?
The outfield is pretty set upon his return. Juan Soto is moving to left field, Trent Grisham, fresh off of his second Gold Glove Award, is in center, with Tatis in right. Who plays right field until he returns?
The easy answer is likely “by committee.”
At first glance, Matt Carpenter seemed like a viable option. Padres manager Bob Melvin weighed in, “I don’t feel the need to put him in the outfield at this point…It’s probably going to be mostly at first, DH, maybe a little at third.”
However, he left the door slightly ajar for the possibility. “If there is a need for (Carpenter in the outfield) down the road, I might.”
Carpenter has logged 31 games at right field in a big league uniform and 40 overall in the outfield. Given his age and subpar defensive metrics, that doesn’t seem to be a fit unless the situation gets more dire.
Adam Engel was brought in for some depth in the outfield. However, the six-year veteran is battling a right calf strain and is yet to see action in the Cactus League. If he somehow gets fully healthy before Opening Day, he is a prime candidate, given his solid defensive metrics at all three outfield spots.
There are two players that may be starting to separate themselves in this race. Non-roster invitee David Dahl has 72 big-league games in right field under his belt. He was an All-Star for the Rockies in 2019, when he hit .302 in 100 games.
His bat took a nose dive after that, with a .201 average and .538 OPS in 2020 and 2021, while not appearing at all in 2022. However, he has come on strong to start the spring in Peoria. Through Wednesday’s action, he has a triple and a home run, with a .917 OPS in 12 at-bats. He is making an early case to be placed on the Opening Day roster. It certainly helps that he bats from the left side, with a career .283 average against right-handers.
The other strong candidate played plenty in the Padres outfield last year, in Jose Azocar. For a guy who is a light hitter, he seemed to force himself into some big moments. He notched a walk-off base hit against the Brewers in May in extra innings. He made some key defensive plays using his pure speed.
Speed is the game for Azocar. He is in the 96th percentile for speed, according to Baseball Savant. In the outfield, he is also in the 96th percentile for getting a good jump on the ball. His defense flirts with the category of “elite,” at the 94th percentile in Outs Above Average. Granted, he has just 98 career games under his belt. However, the athleticism and speed is on full display.
This spring, he has already made an impact. He is 3-for-9, with all three hits being for extra bases. He owns a 1.233 OPS in limited spring action so far. Couple that with his speed and defensive skills, it will be tough to leave him off the Opening Day roster, maybe even starting lineup.
While there are a few other names to watch, such as Tirso Ornelas and Luis Liberato, it’s starting to look like Azocar is the favorite. If Dahl keeps making a charge, there could be a viable platoon between Dahl and Azocar in right field until Tatis can return. The wild card is Engel with his health. He can make this conversation moot with a strong spring after healing up.
If the season were to start today, Azocar would be the Padres’ best option.
However, the Padres still have nearly a month’s worth of games to evaluate their right-field situation.
Native of Escondido, CA. Lived in San Diego area for 20 years. Padres fan since childhood (mid-90s). I have been writing since 2014. I currently live near Seattle, WA and am married to a Seattle sports girl. I wore #19 on my high school baseball team for Tony Gwynn. I am a stats and sports history nerd. I attended BYU on the Idaho campus. I also love Star Wars.