Don’t Apologize for Fernando Tatis Jr. — Embrace Him

If you follow baseball, you might be aware of the minor scandal “caused” by Fernando Tatis Jr. on Monday night. Without the usual tens of thousands of fans in attendance to serve as direct witnesses, Tatis brazenly and maliciously hit a grand slam of Texas Rangers pitcher Juan Nicasio on a 3-0 count, while fully aware that his team had a seven-run lead. Ian Gibaut then came in and threw behind Manny Machado, sending an important message that acts of baseball will not be tolerated! Despite Chris Woodward’s efforts to explain Tatis’ violations of baseball’s sanctified unwritten rules, MLB had the temerity to give suspensions to Woodward and Gibaut. Rob Manfred may as well have thrown mom’s apple pie off the window sill.

More of this, please.

Baseball’s unwritten rules are a dreary mess, a veteran-imposed caste system of arbitrary rules and penalties that attempt to impose conformity, often on players of color, without the slightest benefit to how the game is played on the field or how the product comes across to viewers. And in addition to being tone-deaf and nonsensical, they’re rarely consistently enforced! I certainly don’t remember Woodward issuing a heartfelt apology to the Royals last year when his team hit two home runs in the ninth against Chris Owings, dragooned into mop-up duty in a long-lost game. At least Nicasio is an actual major league pitcher.

But enough about that fussiness — let’s get back to the baseball-related awesomeness of Tatis.

Tatis isn’t going to be the highest-paid Padre for a very long time thanks to the presence of Machado, but if the next decade of San Diego baseball is successful, it will be defined by players like the young shortstop, not to mention Chris Paddack and MacKenzie Gore. The resurgent, seemingly fly ballism-converted Eric Hosmer is in his decline phase and Machado, while a special player, didn’t grow up in the organization.

Tatis finished third in the National League Rookie of the Year voting, but that was primarily due to only playing in 84 games. While I can’t speak for the other voters, 20-30 more games would have been enough to leapfrog him to first on the ballot I submitted last September. And in the first month of the 2020 season, he’s built upon that strong 2019 performance, and how. Last year, he hit .317 in part due to a .410 BABIP, a mark that called out for regression. This year’s .310 BA, on the other hand, has only required a far more normal .345 BABIP to maintain. Home runs are down slightly league-wide from 2019 but you wouldn’t know it looking at Tatis’ line. With 11 homers in 25 games, he now projects in our Depth Charts to finish the 60-game season with 19 homers. A .310/.384/.710 triple-slash comes out as a 189 wRC+. For those unfamiliar with the scaling of wRC+, 100 is league average; every point above 100 is a percentage point above league average. Alex Rodriguez had a 141 mark for his career and fell just short of 180 at his best.

Now, Tatis probably isn’t this good — if he is, eat your heart out, Mike Trout — but the evidence that he’s a superstar has become overwhelming. I love Ronald Acuña Jr. and Juan Soto, but if I got to pick one player to start a new franchise, I’m taking Tatis.

For the Padres, the sooner Tatis can be signed to an extension, the better. There have been rumblings in the past about doing just that — rumblings that obvioulsy came to naught — and the rumors resurfaced again when Fernando Tatis Sr. fueled the extension flames:

As the philosopher Ted Dibiase said, everybody’s got a price. In the end, the best way to get a contract done is to make a great offer, and by a great offer, I don’t mean a contract like Ozzie Albies’s.

The only reason ZiPS had Tatis at the back of its rest-of-career WAR top 10 going into the season was because of his health the last few years. Every season Tatis is healthy, he gets a lot more expensive. Let’s start with his current projection past this year should he remain healthy. Tatis is scheduled to hit free agency after the 2024 season, so we’ll examine the contours of buying out his arbitration years, plus four years of free agency. That would keep Tatis in San Diego until at least the end of the 2028 season and give him a chance to test the market again after his age-29 season:

ZiPS Projection – Post-2020 Fernando Tatis Jr.
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2021 .280 .352 .520 533 113 149 24 7 30 124 57 162 29 131 2 5.9
2022 .285 .360 .557 522 116 149 25 9 33 131 59 162 27 143 2 6.5
2023 .284 .362 .566 525 118 149 25 9 35 136 62 168 27 145 2 6.8
2024 .283 .364 .577 523 120 148 25 9 37 139 65 173 26 149 2 7.0
2025 .278 .362 .579 518 120 144 24 9 38 140 66 176 27 148 2 7.0
2026 .281 .366 .593 506 119 142 23 9 39 142 66 172 27 153 2 7.1
2027 .282 .367 .600 493 116 139 23 10 38 138 64 161 25 155 1 6.9
2028 .290 .373 .620 476 114 138 22 9 39 140 61 148 23 162 0 7.1

That is, of course, a phenomenal projection and actually edges Trout’s over the same period; remember, Trout will be 37 at the end of the 2028 season. Pricing numbers like this is always tricky because $/WAR is as distorted at the top of the curve as it is at the bottom of it. We’ve yet to see a player hit $40 million in a single season — Trout’s extension has him peaking at a mere $36 million — so there’s no history of recent megastars getting the $50-$60 million a year you’d expect at their peaks. If we assume a hard ceiling of $36 million for 2021 (with 4% growth), ZiPS suggests an eight-year, $225 million deal for Tatis as fair, at least in the context of MLB’s economic system.

If I’m San Diego, I’d be willing to do that, though it wouldn’t be my opening bid, naturally. The Braves are getting a steal for Ronald Acuña Jr. at eight-years and $100 million, and it would be hard to describe a 50% bump from that figure as a rank insult. Forbes estimates the Padres’ franchise value at $1.45 billion for 2020. San Diego will always be a smaller market than Los Angeles, but Tatis is one of the keys to making the Padres the modern rival to the Dodgers over the next decade.

Fernando Tatis Jr. is the San Diego Padres franchise. Pay him like he is and unleash him fully, unwritten rules be damned.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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Eltneg
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Eltneg

Wonder how Acuña extension is factoring into the negotiations— by all indications it should be the closest comp, but it’s so far below market value both sides know that it’s probably pointless to even use it as a starting point. Acuña’s agent and the Braves FO are probably rooting against a Tatís extension as hard as NL West teams, it’s gonna be awkward if Tatís’ extension is twice as large as Acuña’s and still widely agreed to be a team-friendly deal.

TKDC
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TKDC

I don’t think the Padres believe it is pointless to use it. I don’t think they think that at all. Keep in mind that although Acuña’s deal is massively beneficial to the Braves, a huge chunk of that is just the nature of pre-free agency in baseball. In fact, Acuña’s deal, as team friendly as it is, was the first 9-figure deal ever given to a player with less than 1 year of service time. Now, Tatis is much closer to free agency (just over 4 years now, compared to 6 years for Acuña), but he’s played fewer MLB games than Acuña had. The Padres will be talking this up in negotiations and as the only team Tatis can negotiate with, there is basically no reason they shouldn’t.

I am very pro-union and believe baseball’s economics are grossly unfair, but I also don’t see the point in ignoring reality. Tatis is not getting $200 million. He’s not getting close to that. I think Dan’s target is pretty good at $150 million, plus-minus $20 million. And really the only reason he will get way more than Acuña is that he’s almost 2 years closer to free agency.

A good case scenario for Tatis without a deal is earning ~$40 million over the next 4 years. Guaranteeing that now comes with some cost for the free agent years. AAV of $27.5 million for 4 years would be $150 million. Make that 22.5 million or 32.5 million and you get the range of $130-170 million. $200 million for 8 years of Tatis seems like a steal, but that is really paying him $40 million per year for the free agent years. That’s not going to happen.

Smiling Politely
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Smiling Politely

I don’t disagree…but what’s Tatis’s incentive to sign now? I get he’s making the league minimum, but wouldn’t he make perhaps just as much (if not more) by waiting a year or two?

TKDC
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TKDC

His incentive is to be set for life, his kids to be set for life, and his grandkids to be set for life. $150 million would do that.

But if he waits even a couple years, yes, he could easily double that or triple it if he goes for max years, depending on how well he plays.

Bartolo Cologne
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Bartolo Cologne

A small but, I think, important addition to what TKDC says: it’s guaranteeing he is set for life. As Dan mentions, it isn’t like Tatis has been totally injury free up to this point. As a Padres fan, I pray he can avoid the injury bug for the rest of his career, but there is a serious non-zero chance that he gets seriously hurt in the not-too-distant future and that potential money disappears

RonnieDobbs
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RonnieDobbs

Those sound more like pitcher concerns. I don’t think him not being rich is a very valid concern.

Bartolo Cologne
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Bartolo Cologne

I totally agree with TKDC. I also wonder how hard the Padres are pushing the very human, “work with us, respect that we didn’t game the system with you” angle. I would expect that they would like him to take at least a minor $ reduction for them not manipulating his service time, or at least be willing to sign for longer. As soon as I heard last year that they were putting him on the opening day roster, that was my first thought, and I think it’s probably even more true now.

RonnieDobbs
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RonnieDobbs

If the on-field baseball is any indication, there are no conversations between any of the coaches / management and the players. I doubt there is any significant dialog taking place in a normal time and this is not a normal time. I am pretty sure we talk more about these things than they do. The smart move is for the Padres to simply let the arbitration system do its job and then let some other team pay for a terrible contract when he is 26 or whatever age he will be. That is probably what is best for everyone. Tatis will get a lot through arbitration and then a mega-payday down the road. That would also work out best for the Padres. The whole gaming the system angle is more Fangraphs narrative than anything else.