Explainer: Padres' OF/SS Tatis situation

August 11th, 2021

SAN DIEGO -- The Padres remain "very serious" about the possibility of moving to the outfield when he returns from the injured list, but they clearly haven't committed to it just yet.

As things stood on Wednesday, the club is mulling both options, according to those familiar with the team’s decision-making. It's possible Tatis could return as a shortstop, same as he ever was. It's also possible he could return as an outfielder -- a midseason position switch that would be somewhat unprecedented for an MVP candidate.

Tatis, after spending Wednesday morning working in both right field and at shortstop, said he has enjoyed learning the nuances of the outfield. If he were to be activated on Thursday -- which seems unlikely, considering the methodical nature of his rehab -- Tatis says he’s ready for game action in right. But where does he think he's going to play?

"I don't know yet," Tatis said. "Probably back at short. We'll see what happens."


So what, exactly, will factor into the team’s decision to ask its biggest star to change his position?

Why would the Padres move Tatis?

Here's the gist: Tatis is currently in his third stint on the injured list this year, and he has already partially dislocated his left shoulder at least four times. With that particular injury, the more it happens, the more likely it is to happen again. Surgery would stabilize the shoulder and prevent future dislocations, but it would also end Tatis' season. San Diego -- and Tatis -- want to avoid that.

Offseason surgery remains possible. But how do the Padres get Tatis through the rest of the regular season and the playoffs? They need to minimize the chances of another shoulder subluxation.

They're currently working to figure out whether a move to the outfield might do the trick. Fewer balls to dive for. Lower likelihood of a collision. Just less action in general.

If Tatis were even a fraction of a percentage more likely to remain healthy as an outfielder than as a shortstop, the Padres think a move would be worth it.

Why wouldn't the Padres move Tatis?

Well, they aren't entirely sold on the concept that the outfield is automatically safer.

“The reality is there’s risk in every position,” Padres manager Jayce Tingler said. “We’ve got to weigh those things. … It’s not a clear-cut decision, by any means.”

The current experiment is predicated on finding out how well Tatis handles the challenges of playing the outfield. The smoother he looks, the likelier he would be to avoid injury.

Tatis, of course, plays the game with a famed reckless abandon, though he said Wednesday, “I can hold myself accountable to not be crashing into the wall.”

It’s not quite so simple. Tatis is familiar with shortstop. He’s unfamiliar with the outfield. That comes with its own share of risks. The Padres want to find out how natural he looks as an outfielder. The early returns (based solely on a week’s worth of workouts) are positive. Considering Tatis’ remarkable athletic skill set, that’s probably no surprise.

What does Tatis say?

To his credit, Tatis has embraced a potential move to the outfield with open arms. He has even spoken about how much he loves the idea of showing off his top speed, chasing down fly balls in the gap.

"Being able to play the game at different parts has always been on my checklist," Tatis said.

According to those closest to Tatis, he fully understands the precarious nature of his injury and simply wants to be on the field as the Padres push for the first World Series in franchise history this fall. Whatever is the best way to make that happen -- Tatis is open to it.

Where would Tatis play?

There’s a school of thought that with enough time to work at it, Tatis’ skill set could make him one of the best center fielders in baseball. But the Padres already have a Gold Glove center fielder in Trent Grisham, and Tatis has been getting almost all of his work in right field.

Why right field? Tatis clearly has the arm for it, and Petco Park’s right field is spacious. His elite wheels would play well there.

But it’s more than that. The Padres also feel that right field is where Tatis would be most likely to avoid injury, with his balky left shoulder less likely to be tested on a ball in the gap than if he were to be ranging to his left in left field or center field.

What does this mean for the rest of the Padres lineup?

Offensively, almost nothing. The Padres have built themselves enough versatility with Jake Cronenworth and Adam Frazier that they could write out practically any lineup they want and move the pieces around to make it work.

Defensively, it’s a different story, predicated on whether Tatis adapts to the transition. Despite his high error total, his elite range has made him only a slightly-below-average shortstop this season. Cronenworth and Ha-Seong Kim are upgrades. But at what cost defensively in right? Mike Petriello broke down the specifics of that debate in his article.

What does this mean in the long-term?

Very little at this point. But there’s a big-picture undercurrent to Tatis’ outfield work this week. The Padres boast one of the game’s top shortstop prospects in CJ Abrams (who is currently out for the season with a broken left leg). Abrams’ arrival is expected at some point in 2022. Right now, there’s no obvious position for him.

Dare we say shortstop?

That’s a debate for another day. The Padres insist this current outfield experiment is rooted only in the here-and-now. They want to win this season. A healthy Tatis is imperative for that goal.