The next Tatis? Abrams may solve SS dilemma

April 1st, 2022

PEORIA, Ariz. -- It's happening again.

It's Spring Training. The Padres have a vacancy at shortstop. They have an elite prospect making a push for that spot.

And now they have a decision to make.

CJ Abrams, much like Fernando Tatis Jr. in 2019, is making a case for a place on the Opening Day roster. The Padres' top prospect and MLB Pipeline's No. 9 overall is hitting .308 with an .871 OPS through Thursday, and he has been steady defensively and a threat on the bases.

"It's a good opportunity," Abrams said. "Go out there, have fun, show what I can do, show that I'm ready."

The roster math has tilted in Abrams' favor, too. The Padres didn't arrive in camp intending for Abrams to occupy a starting role. But within moments of camp opening, X-rays revealed Tatis' fractured left wrist, and all bets were off.

Now the club is left with a complex decision on its hands, one predicated on a huge number of factors -- Abrams' development, the Padres' short-term need, the team's immediate window for contention, the resources it would take to find another option.

San Diego has less than a week to make a decision. Here's a look at the factors that might shape it:

Is Abrams ready?

The comparisons between Tatis in 2019 and Abrams in '22 are fun, but for all intents and purposes, Tatis was more advanced at that stage than Abrams currently. Their Cactus League numbers are similar. But Tatis had 200 more professional games under his belt prior to that camp. In the second floor of the Peoria Sports Complex, where decisions are made, there was little doubt that Tatis was ready to be a star.

That's less clear with Abrams. The Padres remain convinced he’ll be a star, but they aren’t certain about when. Scouts vary on whether Abrams is ready to handle big league-caliber pitching -- and that's probably what you'd expect, considering Abrams has played only 76 professional games. There's simply not much data.

The Cactus League sample is small, too, but Abrams doesn't look overmatched against big league pitching. There's also the notion that comparing Abrams to Tatis is a bit unfair.

Tatis was an instant superstar in 2019. The Padres don't necessarily need that out of Abrams. They merely need a few months of quality shortstopping, and perhaps not even every single day.

There are people in the organization who believe Abrams’ elite speed, excellent bat-to-ball skills and -- perhaps most important of all -- his steady glove will allow him to hold his own.

"You watch him take ground balls every day, and it's not the flashiest thing in the world, but it's solid," manager Bob Melvin said. "You look at his arm strength -- is it plus? It's plus when it needs to be. ... His biggest attribute is his desire.

"He knows he's good. He thinks he's good. He plays like he's good."

Does it really matter whether Abrams is ready?

In an ideal world, Tatis would be healthy, Abrams could get time in the Minors and earn his way to the big leagues midseason, giving the Padres a glut of up-the-middle options for the stretch run.

This, clearly, is not that ideal world.

Tatis is out, and the team's only cover at shortstop on the 40-man roster is Ha-Seong Kim, who posted a .622 OPS last season. Sure, Jake Cronenworth has played short as well, but if he moves there, who would play second? In the wake of the Padres' decision to trade Adam Frazier during the offseason, their infield depth is lacking.

Enter Abrams. He's had the best camp by any of the non-roster contenders for an infield place. He's a lefty bat who could play somewhat regularly, even if he were to platoon with the right-handed-hitting Kim.

The Padres have repeatedly proven they're willing to eschew service-time concerns to promote their top prospects. They’re also in the middle of what they feel is their window for contention. The only question is how to balance Abrams' development with the need for a big league shortstop.

"I don't know at this point," Melvin said. "There may be a need. There may be a need for development. That's what we're trying to get a handle on."

What's the fit, exactly?

The biggest offensive holes right now on San Diego's roster? The need for another infielder and outfield depth. Suddenly, it seems possible that Abrams could fill both roles.

There's no scenario in which the Padres promote Abrams and he doesn't play regularly. That would almost certainly come at shortstop. But on Wednesday, Melvin mulled the possibility that Abrams could serve as the team's backup center fielder. (As things stand, the team does not have one.)

Abrams hadn't spoken with team decision-makers about the possibility as of Thursday morning. But he's certainly open to it, adding: "Whatever it takes, whatever they need me to do, I'll do it."

If Abrams were to make the team, he’d play shortstop -- perhaps every day, perhaps in a timeshare with Kim. The outfield question is born of necessity, with the Padres asking themselves how they would find cover in the event something were to happen to Grisham.

Then again, plenty of people have wondered how Abrams might handle a long-term transition to the outfield. The Padres, after all, have a pair of All-Stars in Tatis and Cronenworth playing up the middle. Abrams, for one, thinks he'd fare just fine out there.

"I could use my speed," Abrams said. "Arm angle is a little different, so I'd have to get used to that. But I could use my speed in the outfield."

What are the other options?

On the 40-man roster, frankly, there are none. The decision to option Eguy Rosario to Triple-A El Paso on Wednesday left San Diego without a backup for any of its infield spots, aside from first base. (That is, assuming Jurickson Profar isn't asked to step back into the infield, and the club has said he won't be.)

Abrams is the clear next-best infielder on the Spring Training roster. But there's still a week until Opening Day, and the front office remains active. As rosters are pared down elsewhere, utility infielders might become available.

Ostensibly, Abrams isn't competing against those utility men for a backup infield spot. He needs to prove himself worthy of a starting role to make the team.

To his credit, Abrams seems open to all of it. He'll play the outfield, if need be. He'll play second and short. He'll play every day. He'll platoon.

"Playing every day, wherever, playing every other day, it doesn't matter to me," Abrams said. "As long as I can help the team win, I'm ready to do it."