Tatis gets green light to step up his swings

July 16th, 2022

SAN DIEGO -- The slumping Padres needed a boost, and it's difficult to envision a bigger one than this:

At long last, Fernando Tatis Jr. has something of a trajectory to return to the field. The superstar shortstop received clearance to begin his swinging progression, and he started it Friday afternoon with light work off a tee, manager Bob Melvin said.

Earlier this week, Tatis underwent imaging on his fractured left wrist. After a couple days of internal discussions among doctors and team personnel, Tatis was cleared to begin swinging -- the most important hurdle left to clear before a timetable could be established for his return.

"It feels like it's been a really long time," a smiling Tatis said from his Petco Park locker prior to the Padres' series opener against the D-backs on Friday night. "I just want to be out there with the boys, be together with them in that jungle."

For now, the Padres are calling Tatis' timetable week to week. There's some flexibility, too. They'll slow things down if Tatis' wrist is sore. They'll speed it up if he's feeling good. But there are a few clues that point to a potential return for Tatis at some point in early August.

Notably, the Padres had previously indicated that he would need a 10- to 14-day build-up period before he faces live pitching. That progression starts with tee work, then light toss, then batting practice. With that timetable, Tatis could begin facing live pitching in late July. From there, it's a matter of how long it would take for Tatis to find some measure of timing at the plate.

"With any injury, you've got to be flexible," said Padres president of baseball operations A.J. Preller. "We'll constantly talk with our doctors. ... It will be, honestly, a week-to-week thing."

Tatis underwent surgery to repair the scaphoid bone in his left wrist on March 16. At the time, the Padres offered a three-month timetable. That recovery period has lasted longer than the Padres and Tatis anticipated.

"Not fun," Tatis said. "But we find a way how to manage ourselves and to be in a good spot mentally and physically, and here we are."

Tatis has been cleared to do nearly all other baseball activity. He generally spends time before each game taking grounders, throwing and working on his conditioning. He also has gotten some reps taking fly balls and making throws in the outfield.

Tatis' return would give a major boost to a Padres offense that could sure use it. On the whole, it's a middling lineup that has struggled mightily against quality pitching. The Padres have posted a collective wRC+ of 99, putting them slightly below league average offensively.

One key area for improvement, of course, is shortstop, where the Padres have combined for a .219/.299/.327 slash line this season, generally using a platoon of Ha-Seong Kim and rookie C.J. Abrams. Tatis, meanwhile, slashed .282/.364/.611 with 42 homers last season.

“Obviously, Fernando as a healthy player, he's an impact guy," Preller said. "He adds that energy element to our team. And then he can obviously do a lot on the field. He can hit the ball out of the ballpark. He can score with his legs. He's a threat, and he makes the other guys in the lineup better.

“He adds a lot. We're excited to see him start swinging a bat, see how he progresses, and looking forward to getting him back in the lineup, for sure.”

Of course, it remains possible that Tatis could return as an outfielder -- or at least a shortstop/outfield hybrid. The Padres insist that’s a question for another day. Ultimately, the answer is probably predicated on how active Preller is at the Trade Deadline. As things stand, it seems likely the Padres would deal for at least one outfielder, and if they add enough thump to their outfield mix via trade, Tatis would stick exclusively at shortstop. (That is his stated preference, after all, though he has said he’d be open to a temporary switch if the team needs it.)

Wherever Tatis plays, his presence in this lineup will be welcomed with open arms. After a strong start to the season, the Padres have floundered of late. Entering Friday, they had dropped 14 of 20 and lost significant ground in the National League West. It was a team in desperate need of some good news, and that good news came loud and clear on Friday.

“We’ve been waiting quite a while for this,” Melvin said. “To be able to say that he’s starting his hitting progression is a good day. It puts a smile on everybody’s face. It’ll be tee today, and we literally will take it day to day. We’re trying to stay away from timelines. …

“This has probably gone a little longer than everybody would like to see, certainly more so him than anybody else. But a smile on his face today, looking forward to getting in the cage, getting a bat in his hand.”