Fernando Tatis Jr.’s Return Gets Closer But No Firmer as Padres’ Slide Continues

Fernando Tatis Jr
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Note: This article was published shortly before a San Diego radio station reported that general manager A.J. Preller said that Fernando Tatis Jr. has finally been cleared to begin his hitting progression.

A 23-year-old star shortstop walks into a doctor’s office and… well, we don’t exactly know what happens next, at least in the case of Fernando Tatis Jr. On Monday, Tatis had his left wrist examined by the surgeon who repaired the fracture he sustained during the offseason, but the Padres did not announce a timetable for his return, because while he had been cleared to resume nearly all baseball-related activity, doctors had yet to allow him to swing a bat at full intensity. That holding pattern lasted until Friday morning, shortly after this article was originally published, when general manager A.J. Preller revealed that Tatis was finally cleared to take hacks. The green light comes with team in the midst of a four-week skid after briefly supplanting the Dodgers atop the NL West.

All the uncertainty has been par for the course, as the entire saga of Tatis’s wrist injury is rather murky. In early December, shortly after the lockout began, he was reportedly involved in a motorcycle accident in the Dominican Republic, via which he sustained “minor scrapes.” He apparently did not begin feeling the effects of the injury until he began taking swings in mid-February in preparation for spring training. On March 14, with the lockout finally over, the team announced that x-rays revealed he had suffered a fracture; when asked about the motorcycle accident at the time, the shortstop responded, “Which one?” and acknowledged “a couple incidents” without further specificity. Tatis underwent surgery to repair his scaphoid bone on March 16, at which time general manager A.J. Preller estimated a three-month recovery and a mid-June return.

That timetable proved to be too optimistic. As of early May, Tatis was running and taking grounders, but on June 14, Preller told reporters, “Another MRI scan continues to show healing, but it was not quite at the level for … a full green light.” In other words, he had not been cleared to hit, though he was able to play catch at full intensity. Eight days later, he was able to swing “at 40% intensity” for what acting manager Ryan Christenson called “a systems check” (manager Bob Melvin was in COVID-19 protocol at the time). After a visit to doctors on June 28, Tatis said he expected to be taking swings in two weeks, but he did not get the expected green light in Monday’s follow-up.

Via the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Kevin Acee, the delay reflected the team exercising caution because there had not been a full consensus from among the doctors the Padres were consulting on whether Tatis has healed enough to begin swings:

The hope that Tatis would finally be cleared at some point this weekend has now been realized. The expectation is that his “progression from dry swings to swinging against live pitching is expected to take about 10 days,” after which Tatis will go on a rehab assignment whose length of time will be dictated by how comfortable he feels and how quickly he gets up to speed. Thus, even with Friday’s announcement, it sounds like he won’t be back until the end of this month or early in August.

For the skidding Padres, the return of the reigning NL home run champion can’t come soon enough. San Diego played outstanding baseball through the first 10 weeks of the season; through June 22, the team was 44–27, owners of the NL’s third-best record behind the Mets (45–26) and Dodgers (42–25) and in a virtual tie for first place with the latter atop the NL West. The Padres had spent seven of the previous nine days with at least a share of first place as well, even briefly nudging the Dodgers out of the top spot for the only time since the beginning of May.

Since then, however, the Padres have gone 6–14 (.300) for the NL’s second-worst record as the Dodgers have gone an NL-best 16–5. That’s created a 9.5-game swing in the standings, all but wiping out San Diego’s chance to win the division. The Padres’ .277 Pythagorean Winning Percentage suggests things could have been even worse.

Padres’ Change in Playoff Odds
Date W L W% GB Win Div Clinch Bye Clinch WC Make Playoffs Win WS
June 22 44 27 .620 0 38.0% 35.4% 55.2% 93.2% 8.9%
July 14 50 41 .549 9.5 4.2% 3.7% 77.6% 81.8% 4.7%
Change -33.8% -31.7% +22.4% -11.4% -4.2%

The Padres have gotten just an 83 wRC+ from the shortstops they’ve used in place of Tatis, but that split is deceptive. Ha-Seong Kim, who has made 59 starts at the position, has provided a 99 wRC+ in that role and a 102 mark overall, making 17 additional starts at third base in Manny Machado’s stead. Kim is hitting .239/.329/.364 with five homers and four steals and has provided a combined 6.7 UZR, 5 DRS, and 3 RAA at the two positions. Rookie C.J. Abrams has started 26 times at shortstop but has hit for just a 72 wRC+ at the position and a 74 mark overall via a .233/.278/.328 line. To be fair, the 21-year-old rookie had just 42 games at Double-A and none at Triple-A when the Padres brought him to the majors in the wake of Tatis’s injury. He’s been a bit better (.279/.286/.377, 87 wRC+) since returning from a six-week stint at Triple-A El Paso when Machado suffered a sprained ankle, and Melvin has praised his progress. Still, even with that improvement (not to mention some brief experimentation in the outfield), he’s netted zero WAR and could find himself back in the minors once reinforcements arrive.

Kim’s strong work has the Padres again mulling the idea of playing Tatis in the outfield, something they did for about a month last year after he returned from a bout of left shoulder inflammation in mid-August. He made 16 starts in right field and seven in center and didn’t injure or embarrass himself; the small-sample metrics suggest he was a touch below average. Tatis said a few weeks ago that he’s open to the possibility but that he had yet to work out there. The truth is that a temporary move would make a whole lot of sense given the shape of this roster, because the Padres’ outfield is a flat-out disaster. Collectively, they’ve gotten a .220/.303/.346 (89 wRC+) performance and a net 2.4 WAR from their three outfield spots; both center field and right field (0.4 WAR apiece) are bound for my upcoming Replacement Level Killers series highlighting the biggest lineup holes on contending teams.

The Padres outfielder who has provided the bulk of the positive production, left fielder Jurickson Profar, has accounted for 2.0 WAR, hitting .242/.343/.397 (115 wRC+), but he suffered a concussion and a neck strain via a terrifying collision with Abrams on July 7 and was placed on the seven-day IL. Thankfully, he appears to be on his way back, beginning a rehab assignment on Thursday night and going 0-for-4 with a walk for Single-A Lake Elsinore; he could be activated as soon as Friday. That Lake Elsinore lineup also featured Wil Myers, who went 1-for-3 with a walk and a homer in the third game of his rehab assignment. Myers has been limited to 32 games (all in right field) this season by a right thumb contusion and right knee inflammation, the latter of which has sidelined him since early June. When available, he’s hit a meager .234/.276/.306 (65 wRC+) in 134 PA for the Padres, producing just 0.1 WAR.

Taking advantage of Myers’ absence is Nomar Mazara, who was released by the Tigers after just 50 games last year, signed a minor league deal in March, and spent all of April and May with El Paso. Since joining the team when Myers went down in early June, the 27-year-old has hit a sizzling .314/.368/.429 (130 wRC+) in 114 PA. Remarkably, his 0.7 WAR is approaching his career high of 0.9, set 2018 with the Rangers; for all of his raw power, he has never put together even a one-win season due to low on-base percentages and subpar defense. He’s elevating the ball more than usual — his 35.7% groundball rate is a career low and his 16.6 degree average launch angle is a career high — but he’s barreling just 3.6% of batted balls and is well ahead of his Statcast expected stats (.275 xBA/.393 xSLG), suggesting that this run could be fleeting. For the moment, the lefty-swinging Mazara at least owns the long half of a right field platoon. Righty-swinging José Azocar, a 26-year-old rookie who has hit .229/.277/.321 in 141 PA, clearly isn’t the answer as his platoon-mate.

The Padres have gotten even less offense from center field via a .186/.282/.314 (75 wRC+) line. Nearly all of that is on Trent Grisham (.192/.295/.334, 85 wRC+), who appears to have forgotten how to hit after producing a 109 wRC+ and 4.4 WAR in 2020–21. Earlier this week, the Padres called up prospect Esteury Ruiz, a 23-year-old Dominican speedster who has hit an eye-opening .333/.467/.560 with 13 homers and a minors-leading 60 steals (in 69 attempts) in 77 games split between San Antonio and El Paso. While he’s seen time at all three outfield spots, 56 of his appearances have been in center field; since being promoted, he’s started twice in left and once in center, going 4-for-12 with a double, a triple, and a steal, all against the Rockies at Coors Field. He made a significant gaffe in his major league debut, though, getting caught stealing for the third out of the eighth inning with Kim at the plate representing the tying go-ahead run; the Padres lost that one, 5–3. Oof.

Ruiz was rated as a 35+ Future Value prospect as of May, when he was ranked 25th on our Padres prospect list. He’s got 70-grade speed and average raw power — a combination that drew Alfonso Soriano comparisons at one point, in part because he was a bad second baseman before moving to the outfield. All of his other tools are at least a grade below average, with his hit tool graded at 30/35, though it’s worth noting he’s striking out at a 17.4% rate this year, down from 20.7% last year and 26.6% in 2019. From Eric Longenhagen’s report:

There are still swing-and-miss issues lurking beneath the surface here, especially against high fastballs. Ruiz is still likely to have a well-below-average hit tool, but he has enough power to be dangerous and is especially adept at hooking breaking balls that don’t finish down the left field line. Ruiz’s impact speed has helped him transition from second base to left field, and now to center field, where he began to see time in 2021. He has barely played 50 career games in center, and he often shows the discomfort and tentative body language of someone new to the position while circling fly balls, but he definitely has the long speed to play there with time, and that speed plays on the bases as well; Ruiz stole 23 bases during the first month of play in 2022. His speed is so disruptive that it alone should give him big league utility as a top-shelf pinch runner, with the chance that he might run into one off the bench the cherry on top of an up/down outfielder sundae.

An outfield pieced together with a healthy Profar, Tatis, and a Mazara/Myers platoon could provide an offensive upgrade, with Grisham providing defensive support and Ruiz some tactical usage off the bench. That wouldn’t solve all of the Padres’ problems; for one thing, Eric Hosmer has hit just .237/.295/.313 for a 72 wRC+ since I highlighted him on May 3, when he was off to a scorching .382/.447/.579 start. On the pitching side of things, the team has been working with a six-man rotation which has helped control the innings counts of rookie MacKenzie Gore and Tommy John surgery returnee Mike Clevinger, but the unit has been hit for a 5.07 ERA and 4.66 FIP over the past 30 days, with Blake Snell walking 13.8% of hitters en route to a 5.22 ERA and 3.69 FIP. The bullpen has been shaky over the past month as well (.4.74 ERA, 3.60 FIP), and closer Taylor Rogers has yielded runs in five straight appearances, blowing two saves and inflating his ERA to 4.04.

Preller has generally taken an aggressive approach to upgrading the Padres at the deadline, and this year promises to be no different; we can expect him to pursue additions to the outfield and bullpen at the very least, possibly by moving a starter, and who knows what else. Nothing he does, however, will have a potential impact that can match the return of Tatis. Exactly when that will happen, no one can yet say.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Big Picturemember
2 months ago

AJ Preller announced this morning on the Ben and Woods show that Tatis will begin his hitting progression today.