With Bogaerts nearing return, how will Padres' infield look?

July 10th, 2024

SAN DIEGO -- The most impactful at-bats any Padre took on Tuesday at Petco Park came about four hours before first pitch.

, who had recently spent four days with Triple-A El Paso on a rehab stint, returned to San Diego and faced live pitching on Tuesday afternoon. He took about 20 plate appearances against Minor Leaguers, spraying line drives to all fields.

The shoulder fracture that has kept him sidelined since May 20 is no longer an issue, Bogaerts said. He’s mostly just trying to get his legs back under him, get his timing back at the plate, get his rhythm back on the field.

But he’s close. It’s possible Bogaerts could return this weekend, when the Padres wrap up the first half with a three-game series against the Braves. Speaking before San Diego’s 8-3 loss to the Mariners and All-Star right-hander Logan Gilbert, Bogaerts expressed optimism for his return.

“Feel good,” he said. “I’m getting there, getting close. Hopefully it’s coming around soon.”

Tuesday’s loss aside, the Padres' offense has fared well without Bogaerts -- and recently, without Fernando Tatis Jr. as well. San Diego entered play Tuesday with the National League’s second-ranked offense by wRC+, trailing only the Dodgers.

“We’re playing really well right now,” Bogaerts said. “I want to be there. But I feel like I’m a couple games away from meeting up with the team. … I’ve waited so long already. I feel like I’m close. The tough part has been waiting.”

Indeed, the plan is for Bogaerts to play another game or two at nearby Single-A Lake Elsinore. If all goes well, he’ll return to face the Braves this weekend -- a fitting opponent. It was in Atlanta that Bogaerts sustained the injury as he dove to stop a ground ball at second base.

“Started in Atlanta, and he could come back against Atlanta,” said Padres manager Mike Shildt. “But look, the value of him getting back is, in and of itself, the most important thing.”

Bogaerts struggled in the early part of the season. In 200 plate appearances, he batted just .219 with a .581 OPS. But immediately prior to his injury, there were signs he was finding a groove. Bogaerts rode a six-game hitting streak into the game in which he sustained the injury. During that span, he was batting .333 with a pair of homers.

Of course, the dynamics in the Padres' infield were different then. Luis Arraez was still settling in following the early May trade that sent him to San Diego. Manny Machado was still DH-ing semi-regularly as he worked his way back from elbow surgery. Donovan Solano was a bench piece.

Now? All three are regulars, alongside Jake Cronenworth and Ha-Seong Kim in the infield. If you’re doing the math, that’s five guys for four infield places, plus DH. Add Bogaerts to the mix and …

“We need another position,” Shildt said, laughing. “Maybe go five-man infield.”

No, that’s not the plan. Nor do the Padres seem likely to ask any of those infielders to learn the outfield (at least not in the immediate future). They already have three All-Stars in their outfield, after all, and they remain hopeful Tatis will return from the stress reaction in his right femur at some point in August.

So … it’ll be six players for five spots. A puzzle, sure. But it’s precisely the type of puzzle any manager would love to solve.

Plus, there are other benefits to the current surplus. Machado and Arraez have played through some bumps and bruises recently and could probably use sporadic rest days. Bogaerts, meanwhile, can be eased back into action. Shildt noted that Bogaerts could DH some, but he’ll mostly continue to play second base, which would push Cronenworth back to first.

If everyone’s healthy and available for an important game against a right-handed starter? Reading between the lines, Solano is probably the odd man out, relegated to his previous spot on the bench. But he’d presumably still get an at-bat or two on a nightly basis -- and he’s already proven his value as a bench bat. He’s hitting .385 with a .914 OPS as a sub this season.

“We just need to be smart about it and communicative with the players and [know the] matchups,” Shildt said. “There’s going to be a real productive player that’s not going to be in the lineup to start the game. Then, figure out the best spot for them to be used when the situations arise.”