What Should the Padres Do With Fernando Tatis Jr.?

Jul 22nd 2022

Brendan Tuma

As always, feel free to keep the conversation rolling on Twitter, @toomuchtuma.

It hasn't been a fun season for the Fernando Tatis Jr. Fan Club. To remind readers of exactly how frustrating things have been, let's re-create his injury timeline, including the delayed rehab process:

  • December 2021: It is reported that Tatis was in a motorcycle accident but suffered only minor scrapes.

  • March 14, 2022: After the lockout GM AJ Preller announces that Tatis might need wrist surgery and could be sidelined up to 3 months.

  • March 16: Tatis undergoes surgery.

  • April 11: Tatis expects to start swinging a bat in 3 weeks.

  • May 6: Tatis says he's unsure when he'll start swinging.

  • May 23: Tatis undergoes another bone scan. One day later he still isn't cleared to swing a bat.

  • June 14: A followup CT-scan doesn't show the level of healing San Diego hoped to see; his timeline to return is pushed back.

  • July 12: It is announced Tatis will undergo another scan.

  • July 14: Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune reports doctors "are not in total agreement" regarding the next steps for Tatis.

  • July 15: Preller announces Tatis will begin a hitting progression on July 22.

That's quite the odyssey since we last saw Tatis in game action. The team desperately needs good news to come from the start of his hitting progression on Friday. However, his eventual return to the San Diego lineup comes with the question of where will he play?

In all likelihood, Tatis is going to return as the Padres' everyday shortstop, but should he?

Tatis' Defense

We have 3 years of defensive data on Tatis, though time missed due to injuries and the pandemic means they aren't full seasons. Still, what's clear is that during this time every defensive stat has been very volatile for him. Take a look:

Note that the above table only factors in Tatis' time at shortstop in 2021.

It feels counter-intuitive for Tatis to be anything shy of an elite defender. He has elite speed and an absolute cannon for a throwing arm. It leads to plays like this:

And the athleticism leads to plays like this:

And yet, outside of the shortened 2020, errors have been a major issue for him.

In the modern days of baseball analysis we tend to ignore errors to focus on OAA/DRS, but players who have extreme error fluctuations will be reflected in the more advanced metrics. Unfortunately, the public doesn't have access to further filter OAA beyond a fielder going in/out/left/right.

This leaves us at a bit of a crossroads for Tatis' defensive evaluation. Again, the athleticism and throwing arm give him a baseline to play shortstop, but the throwing inconsistencies have held him back. If that consistency ever improves he'd very likely become an above-average shortstop. Perhaps he would become elite.

As for his outfield metrics, he simply hasn't played enough of it to give him a fair evaluation. OAA had him as neutral in RF and -1 in CF. He possesses the speed and throwing arm to be a factor at either spot if he ever committed to learning the more nuanced details.

When Tatis started playing the outfield in mid-August of 2021, it was mainly Jake Cronenworth who became the primary shortstop. This season, the Padres opened with a platoon of CJ Abrams (against righties) and Ha-seong Kim (versus lefties). Several months into the year, Kim is the one who stands out as uniquely valuable.

Kim's Value

Even while struggling as a rookie in 2021, Kim played solid defense. Overall, he ranked within the 81st percentile of Statcast's Outs Above Average metric (OAA). He played solidly at both shortstop and second base, and could even function as a fill-in at the hot corner. At shortstop, Kim posted 9 defensive runs saved (DRS) in '21, which was the fifth most at the position. DRS viewed him as even more valuable at 2B/3B too.

In 2022 he ranks in the 92nd percentile in OAA. Among shortstops, which is the position Kim has played most of this season, he ranks 8th overall. This year, DRS views him as the 7th best SS in the league.

The results are clear as we now have multiple years with multiple defensive metrics seeing Kim as plus-to-elite at one of baseball's most demanding positions.

The value he provides doesn't end there, though. Kim has largely rebounded from a bad offensive showing to begin his big league career. After slashing .202/.270/.352 as a rookie he's up to .242/.329/.363 in 2022. His wRC+ has jumped from 70 last season to 102 throughout baseball's first half.

If we only look at his performance against lefties, then Kim's recommended amount of playing time becomes a lot more clear. This is because the 26-year-old is absolutely raking against southpaws right now:

Based on his offense alone it's pretty clear that Kim needs to be an everyday player against lefties. We know he won't displace Manny Machado at third base, and while he could give the lefty-hitting Jake Cronenworth some time off at 2nd, the Padres have better platoon options in the outfield.

This is where Tatis' outfield experience from last season comes into play. Tatis wants to play shortstop, but maybe there's a middle ground where he plays the position against RHPs while shifting to the outfield (in favor of Trent Grisham or Nomar Mazara) versus southpaws.

Tatis' TRADE Value

This isn't going to happen.

For starters, when Tatis signed his 14-year, $340 million deal prior to the '21 campaign, San Diego gave him a full no-trade clause. So he'll stay put for as long as he wants.

Yet I can't help but wonder what the relationship is like between player and team right now. We've already covered all the injury-related frustrations from 2022, but it's important to remember that the fractured wrist stemmed from one of multiple offseason motorcycle accidents.

This, just a few months after the Padres' 2021 season went up in flames down the stretch....with Tatis at the center of the meltdown. In mid-September he got into a heated argument with teammate Manny Machado, which according to Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune, was a situation that had been "building for weeks."

As an isolated incident, a shouting match in the middle of a playoff chase isn't a story, but Acee noted it wasn't the first time a veteran player had talked to Tatis about his "brooding." Jayce Tingler was eventually let go as manager in favor of Bob Melvin, and things have been going well for the squad this summer. Of course, Tatis hasn't been active.

So are the Padres fully happy with the 23-year-old that they gave a record-setting, lifetime contract to? It's impossible to know for sure, but at the very least tensions are probably rising.

This likely wouldn't matter at all if it wasn't for the fact that Juan Freaking Soto might be available for trade. San Diego has already been linked to Soto, though they'd likely prefer to part with prospects over Tatis.

The NY Post's Jon Heyman recently noted, "though uber-talent Fernando Tatis Jr. may seem like the obvious guy to trade in a Soto deal, and the likely ask, the idea for the Padres would be β€œto pair Soto with Tatis,” according to a person familiar with their thinking."

The idea of putting Soto, Tatis, and Machado on one baseball team is nauseating to think about. My goodness that would be fun! But Tatis' name has to come up during talks, right? And the Padres would have to think about it, yes? A trade could make a lot of sense for both sides:

  1. Soto could serve as a perfect superstar complement to Machado. San Diego's long-term contract situation also clears up in anticipation of an eventual Soto extension.

  2. Washington currently has a star player that they're unlikely to sign long-term. Tatis is a star player who is already signed long-term.

  3. IF the Padres are fed up with Tatis, this might be the only time to receive a superstar player in a trade return.

But this isn't going to happen. Tatis has a no-trade clause and even if he is upset with the team, would he want to leave a postseason contender for the Nats?

Furthermore, part of the point of a Soto trade for Washington is to clear the books. The team is going to be sold soon. Would new ownership want to have a huge commitment to Tatis already on the books? He's a star to build around, but oftentimes new ownership likes to start fresh.

It's still a wildly interesting hypothetical that makes sense on a few foundational levels.

That's what we have with Tatis right now - hypotheticals. On his trade value. When he'll return. What his best position is. Whether or not he's a leader.

Would it be surprising if he performed as the best player in baseball over the next 3-5 years? Absolutely not. The best version of the Padres includes a healthy and productive Tatis. San Diego just needs to decide what to do with him first.