Image credit: Fernando Tatis Jr. (Photo by Bill Mitchell)
SAN DIEGO — When Fernando Tatis Jr. got called into the visiting manager’s office at T-Mobile Park following the Padres’ final exhibition game against the Mariners earlier this week, he expected to be told he was getting on a plane to Texas to begin the season in the minors.
“To be honest, I told my dad my head is in the minor leagues,” said Tatis, the No. 2 prospect in baseball. “If they send me down, it’s not a surprise. Now if they call me up, that’s going to be the big surprise.”
The big surprise came, much to the delight of Tatis, his family and the Padres’ fanbase. Tatis is starting at shortstop and batting sixth for the Padres on Opening Day at the tender age of 20 on Thursday, making him the youngest player to start a game for the Padres since Roberto Alomar in 1988.
The Padres’ decision to start him on Opening Day raised eyebrows across the industry for its timing. By holding him down in the minors for at least the first two weeks of the season—and it would have been reasonable to do so considering the Tatis has yet to play above Double-A—the Padres would have gained an extra year of service time and delayed his free agency by a year.
General manager A.J. Preller acknowledged that was a big part of the discussion on where to send Tatis to start the year. In the end, considerations about putting the best team on the field in the majors outweighed service-time considerations.
“Every situation is different,” Preller said. “Every team does what they feel like they need to do with that time. You’re dealing with different players, different personalities, different major league rosters, so I think every team is going to operate for what’s best for them. In this case, for a lot of different reasons, we felt like it was best for him to be with the big league club.”
Shortstop has recently been a revolving door for the Padres, with five different Opening Day shortstops in the last five years. Rather than sign another past-their-prime veteran as they have in the past (i.e. Erick Aybar and Alexei Ramirez) or go with prospects who were lesser at the position defensively (Luis Urias) or offensively (Javy Guerra), the organization decided the time was now to plant the cornerstone of their rebuild.
Tatis hit .265/.345/.490 in spring training, but for the Padres, it was his intangibles, defense and speed that convinced the club to take that step.
“A.J. and the group, all of use felt he’s wired in a way to be able to handle the struggles that inevitably come in the big leagues,” manager Andy Green said. “There’s going to be times it’s going to be tough. He’ll go through some stretches, but he’s wired to be able to handle it and he’s going to be able to do some electric things in the meantime. We do think he’s a guy who can defend the field, run the bases. Whatever he does with the bat for us in the beginning of the year, that’s going to be a bonus for us.”
The lack of pressure on the bat early is key because Tatis is historically a slow starter, another point raised in favor of starting him in the minors. But what matters to the Padres is his numbers at the end of the year, not the start, and his track record of adjusting quickly is a significant reason why he’s become the highest-ranked prospect in franchise history.
“We’ve felt like we’ve challenged him the last few years at the minor league level with pretty aggressive Opening Day assignments, and by the end of the season he rewarded our faith in those assignments,” Preller said. “I think we feel like again we’re going to challenge a talented player that’s going to answer the bell for us in a lot of cases, and it makes our team better.”
As for worries about losing him a year earlier in free agency?
“We look at everything, and ultimately we came back to we just feel like we’re in a position to handle things down the road with Tatis,” Preller said. “The most important thing is he goes out and plays well and performs. We felt like it was the best deal for the club.”
The end result was Tatis standing in front of a locker bearing his nameplate at Petco Park on Thursday morning with a beaming smile on his face, a tinge of excitement in his voice and a crisp white Padres jersey bearing his name hanging to his right.
Service time and free agency will take care of itself sometime in the mid-2020s. For now, he’s got more immediate things to focus on.
“This is a good beginning,” he said, “of a long story.”