Fernando Tatis Jr. Is Coming Back. Now Where the Heck Is He Going to Play?

Fernando Tatis Jr
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

When the Padres shake off the hurt from their NLCS loss, they’ll have plenty of reasons to look back on this season as a success in its own right and a springboard to more and better in 2023. They won 89 games and advanced further into the playoffs than they had in 24 years. Along the way they knocked off not one but two 100-win teams, including the hated Dodgers. Their top three starting pitchers are coming back, as are at least six starters of the remaining eight defensive positions. Oh yeah, and they’ll have a full season of Josh Hader and Juan Soto to look forward to.

Here’s the best news: At some point this postseason, you probably looked at Ha-Seong Kim and thought, “Was he always their shortstop? Didn’t they used to have this other guy? Tall fella, Freddie something?”

Fernando Tatis Jr.’s 2022 campaign was about as bad as his teammates’ season was good. Not only did he fail to play a single competitive game, but he also missed the season for pretty embarrassing reasons. First, he broke his wrist in a motorcycle accident — apparently one of several he suffered during the offseason — and thanks to the lockout the team didn’t find out the extent of his injuries until he arrived in camp in March. Then, just as his return seemed imminent, he tested positive for clostebol, an anabolic steroid, which cost him the rest of the year. As reasons for missing an entire season go, a careless and avoidable injury followed by a careless and avoidable suspension are not ideal.

But he’s coming back next year. After being suspended the last 48 games of the regular season, plus 12 more in the playoffs, his return date should be April 20 against Arizona, barring unexpected setbacks from a second wrist surgery last week.

A lot of the talk around Tatis’ reintegration has centered on winning his teammates and Padres management back over. (My advice: A sincere and concise apology, follow-up conversations with individuals as needed, perhaps followed by a small gift to show contrition and re-establish an atmosphere of collegiality. I hear athletes send each other protein powder in lieu of flowers.) But that’s between him and his team, and besides, forgiveness is easy to come by when you’re a shortstop with a 153 career wRC+.

Now, about that shortstop thing. The interesting question to me is not whether the Padres will forgive and accept Tatis; it’s where they’ll play him. Kim, it turns out, was quite good at shortstop this year: his 3.7 WAR ranked third on the team among position players. And the two players ahead of him, Manny Machado and Jake Cronenworth, have two of the other infield positions locked down.

That’d make for an awkward fit, but lucky for the Padres, there are spots opening up elsewhere on the diamond, illustrated here in a chart of relevant Padres position player departures, titled “Relevant Padres Position Player Departures.”

Relevant Padres Position Player Departures
Player Position WAR wRC+ Contract Notes
Jurickson Profar LF 2.5 110 $7.5M Player Option
Brandon Drury INF/DH 3.0 123 Free Agent
Josh Bell 1B/DH 2.0 123 Free Agent
Wil Myers 1B/OF/DH 1.0 104 $20M Team Option

That means, barring a trade, there will be three open spots in the lineup: first base, DH, and one of the outfield corners. Tatis hits well enough his bat plays anywhere — his career slugging percentage is higher than Aaron Judge’s — but what makes him so special is his combination of middle-of-the-order power and middle-of-the-infield athleticism. If he plays a more difficult defensive position, he replaces a worse theoretical hitter in the lineup and becomes more valuable as a result. While he could certainly DH or play first, he wouldn’t be most valuable there.

Near as I can tell, the two best fits are the two positions at which he’s been a big league regular already: right field and shortstop.

Let’s start with the case for right field. It starts with the numbers, which say Kim is actually the superior defensive shortstop: 4.6 UZR/150 and eight outs above average in 1,352 innings for Kim, -7.1 UZR/150 and -6 OAA in 2,047 innings for Tatis. If Kim remains at shortstop, Tatis has to move somewhere. First base and DH would be a waste for aforementioned reasons, as would second; in addition to Cronenworth’s strong play there, Tatis’ throwing arm is so incredible I’d never commit such an act of sacrilege as to suggest wasting it on the right side of the infield. Third base is emphatically taken by Machado, and while Tatis’ physical gifts could make him a transcendent defensive center fielder, Trent Grisham seems ensconced there for the time being.

The next stop down the defensive spectrum is right. Soto played there since arriving from Washington, but Tatis’s arm profiles better there. Soto can moved back to left field, where he played his first three seasons in the majors, without any undue fuss. Everyone else stays put.

The other reason to move Tatis to the outfield full-time has nothing to do with him or Kim, and everything to do with Cronenworth. The former University of Michigan standout is a good defensive second baseman and a very good offensive second baseman. If Kim slides over to second, he likely displaces Cronenworth to first base, where he has experience but his bat would be wasted even more than Tatis’ would.

Does Cronenworth hit well enough to play first? Sure. But he doesn’t hit well enough to be a four-win player there, the way he was at second this year. Consider the following: leaguewide average wRC+ for the positions the Padres have to fill, compared to their incumbent middle infield musical chairs contestants, and some realistic corner outfield-y and first base-y types available in free agency.

Offensive Comparison by Player and Position
MLB Positional Averages 2022 wRC+
1B 107
2B 96
SS 94
RF 101
Incumbent Padres
Ha-Seong Kim 105
Jake Cronenworth 110
Fernando Tatis Jr. (2021) 157
Free Agent 1B
Brandon Drury 123
Josh Bell 123
Anthony Rizzo 132
Trey Mancini 104
José Abreu 137
Free Agent Corner OF
Brandon Nimmo 134
Andrew Benintendi 122
Jurickson Profar 110
Joey Gallo 85
Michael Brantley 127
Mitch Haniger 113

Cronenworth might hit better than the average MLB first baseman, but not as well as certain free-agent options. Even though free-agent left fielders also hit about as well as Cronenworth, or even better, the offensive standard at first is still higher than it is in the outfield.

Right field is the defensive position for Tatis that comes with the fewest potential question marks. But there are two considerations that make it worth considering putting him at short. First, what if his defense improves? Tatis has been error-prone, but his defensive defects are not the result of limitations of skill, athleticism, or instinct, but limitations in refinement. With time, he should iron the bumps out of his game.

Consider Carlos Correa, another oversized shortstop with a strong arm. He was a bad defender when he broke in at age 20 but went on to win a Platinum Glove at age 27. And Tatis could cover more ground than Correa even if you made him play in lead-lined Doc Martens — something that’s about to become a particularly important skill once the shift goes away.

The second consideration is this: What if Cronenworth turns into a freakishly good defensive first baseman? Here, the Padres can draw inspiration from the Astros. When Houston called up Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel in late 2016, second base and shortstop were already occupied. So Bregman moved from his natural position (shortstop) to third, and Gurriel moved from his natural position (third) to first. Gurriel, like Cronenworth, is an exceptional line drive hitter who lacks ideal power for first base, but he’s used his skills from elsewhere on the infield to become very good at scooping low throws and stopping balls down the line.

Cronenworth has only made 34 career starts at first in the majors, but in his draft year he appeared in more games at first base than any other position — also 34 — due to a quirk in Michigan’s roster construction. Cronenworth mostly played second and third but was also one of the Wolverines’ best pitchers; their starting first baseman, Carmen Benedetti, also pulled double duty as the team’s top left-handed reliever. So when Benedetti came in to protect a lead, Cronenworth would move either from the mound or another infield position to first, giving Michigan an infield of Cronenworth and three shortstops. It was just as good defensively as you’d think.

Between Machado, Tatis, Kim, and Cronenworth, who now has more than 400 innings at short on his CV, the Padres could credibly call their infield a four-shortstop infield. And while the offensive expectations for a corner outfielder are slightly slower than those for a first baseman, you can still get a masher there on the free-agent market for a reasonable price. Or sign Robbie Grossman and a platoon partner. Or the hell with it, go throw $40 million a year at Judge. There are options at either position.

The course of the free-agent market this winter, as well as the relative health of all the Padres’ returning players, will probably reveal one of these options to be more attractive than the other. For now, it remains a tricky problem: how to fit an MVP-caliber player into an infield with another MVP-caliber player and two four-win players, or whether to stick him in an outfield corner opposite a third MVP-caliber player. Almost every other team in the league would love to be faced with such a vexing decision.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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1 year ago

C Nola
1B Cronenworth
2B Kim
SS Tatis
3B Machado
LF Soto
CF Grisham
RF Judge

that’s… a hilariously strong lineup. Would be curious to see that compared side-by-side with the Dodgers

Smiling Politely
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy

Formidable for sure. And yet, I think the Pads would be only the 3rd most likely NL West team to sign Judge, as I’d expect the likelihood, if he leaves, to be SFG>(big gap)>LAD>SD (not counting the Mets, etc., who might rank higher). I’d guess SD will spend to keep Soto and then try to figure out the rotation and bench.

Last edited 1 year ago by Smiling Politely
1 year ago

Yeah, I wouldn’t bet on it happening, but the throwaway “go throw $40 million a year at Judge” line at the end got me thinking

1 year ago

The Rockies could always use him at 1B…

Smiling Politely
1 year ago

Or maybe the Pads will trade Hosmer/prospects back to the Royals for salary relief and complete the circle of life!

Last edited 1 year ago by Smiling Politely
Travis Lmember
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy

C anyone with a pulse
1B Bell or Drury
2B Cronenworth
SS Kim
3B Machado
LF Soto
CF Grisham
RF Tatis

Signing Bell and a C who is better than Nola would be cheaper and a better overall lineup IMO.