Who will be the Padres shortstop in 2023?

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Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Who should man shortstop for the Padres in 2023?

The debate began on Sunday, October 23, the minute the Philadelphia Phillies finished off the San Diego Padres in the National League Championship Series.

If Fernando Tatis Jr. had concentrated on baseball during the offseason, rather than zooming around on his motorcycle, the answer would have been simple. But his motorcycle accident(s) and broken wrist prevented his return early in the season. Then the news broke that he’d been suspended for 80 games after testing positive for the banned substance /Clostebol, a performance-enhancing drug.

The unexpected suspension had to be especially disturbing to ownership, the front office, and new manager Bob Melvin. The Padres had signed Tatis Jr. to a mind-boggling $340 million, 14-year contract in February 2021.

That season Tatis batted .282/.364/.611 with 99 runs, 42 home runs. 97 RBI, and 25 stolen bases. In the 2021 Most Valuable Player voting, Bryce Harper won with 348 points (17 first place), while Juan Soto 274 (six first place), and Tatis Jr. 244 (two first place) came in second and third.

After the 2021 season, Tatis Jr. told reporters that he intended to play shortstop exclusively. Apparently, he hadn’t relished playing in the outfield in center and in right. Instead, Ha-Seong Kim took over at short with a little help from prospect CJ Abrams (before he was traded to the Washington Nationals).

The year before, Kim had opened eyes with his defense. But, he’d also had the usual struggles at the plate of players adjusting to the American style of baseball after playing in the Korean Baseball Organization for seven years.

Padres Fernando Tatis Jr.
(Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

In 2021, Kim batted .202/.270/.352/.622 ) OPS+ 73 in 298 plate appearances. Tatis Jr. batted .282/.364/.611/.975 166 OPS+ in almost twice as many plate appearances (546). Kim had been one of the top hitters in Korea but struggled against the American brand of pitching. Power pitchers ate Kim alive at first, but he did improve over the course of the season.

This year, Kim played in 150 games (582 plate appearances) and raised his batting line to .251/.325/283/708 107 OPS+ in 1,092 innings. According to FanGraphs, his offensive values have improved from -11.2 in 2021 to 3.4 in 2022. He’d worked with Jung-Ho Kang during the offseason, and on his first day of spring training, Kim told reporters (through an interpreter) that “It’s 200 percent difference. I’m much more comfortable this year.”

Offensively, Tatis Jr. would leave Kim in the dust in regards to talent and ability at the plate. However, Kim has outplayed Tatis Jr. defensively at short. Despite Tatis Jr.’s dramatic, acrobatic moves, his defense at short has been suspect. According to FanGraphs defensive measurement UZR 150, Tatis has a negative rating (2019 -8, 2020 2.6, 2021 -7.1). In 2019 Tatis Jr. ranked second in MLB in errors with 18 errors, and in 2021, fourth with 22 errors.

In a year in which the offense struggled from first pitch to last, Kim’s steady defense (UZR/150 10.6),  helped the Padres stay in contention. His DRS (defensive runs saved) at short, ranks sixth in Major League Baseball, ahead of Xander Bogaerts, Carlos Correa, Trea Turner, and Francisco Lindor.

In his history with the Padres, Tatis Jr. has tried the patience of management. In 2021 he tested positive for COVID and sat out eight games. His left shoulder forced him to the injured list three times, but he refused to have it surgically repaired in the offseason. Had he been rehabbing from the necessary surgery, he likely would have stayed off his motorcycle and saved his wrist.

Although injuries are part of the game, Tatis’ suspension shocked fans and the front office alike. In the larger picture, the Padres have to deal with the behavior of their superstar, a common problem for sports teams in general who depend upon a demographic (young males) prone to risk-taking behavior.

The Padres could have voided his contract but chose not to. However, they will undoubtedly hold him to a higher standard when he finally returns, while also hoping that finally he’s grown up a bit. Unfortunately, the team cannot rely on his father despite the fact that he played in the major leagues during parts of 11 seasons. Fernando Tatis Sr. predicted that millions of fans would stop watching baseball because of his son’s absence.

Apparently, Padres fans didn’t get the message. A total of 2,991,470 fans flocked to Petco Park to watch home games. During Game 3 against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series, 45,137 fans showed up, breaking all records for attendance in the ballpark.

Without Tatis Jr., the Padres made it to the playoffs in 2022 for the first time in a full season since 2006. That year they lost in the NLDS. Unfortunately, we’ll never know how far they could have gone if Tatis Jr. had been on the roster.

This year’s team eliminated the New York Mets (winners of 101 games to the Padres 89) in the Wild Card Series. Then, San Diego shocked the baseball world by besting the Los Angeles Dodgers (winners of 111) in the National League Division series. During the regular season, the Dodgers won 14 of the 19 games against the Padres.

But the Philadelphia Phillies ended the Padres’ playoff run by winning the National League Championship Series 4-1. Still, the Padres got a taste of the playoffs which should linger into the 2023 season

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But the San Diego offense will need a spark and shouldn’t have to depend upon third baseman Manny Machado to carry the team again next year. The addition of Fernando Tatis Jr. should provide that spark. Some prognosticators envision Tatis playing shortstop, Kim second, base, and Jake Cronenworth first base. But that would dislocate two players.

In my view, Ha-Seong Kim has proven his defensive superiority at shortstop and should not be replaced. Tatis Jr.’s speed, athleticism, and strong arm would play well in left field or right (if the Padres can’t make a deal with Juan Soto).

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