Fernando Tatis Jr. and the Quest to Excellence

Fernando Tatis Jr. and the Quest to Excellence

Once upon a time in PadreLand, you could turn on a baseball game and tune in to your local team and get to be able to see Anthony “Tony” Keith Gwynn stroke base hit after base hit with a swing that one could describe with one world; simple. Everything Tony Gwynn did on a baseball field oozed a type of “coolness” that was rarely seen before. From his cheerful demeanor to his small, little quirks that made him, well, him, Tony Gwynn epitomized San Diego Padre baseball. The Padre’s decision to have him start out the year in the major leagues comes as a very welcomed surprise as they don’t let their financial greed get in their way of making smart, win-now baseball moves. Now, it is surely looking like Fernando Tatis Jr. is ready to change how people view the moniker “Mr. Padre”.

Tatis was signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2015 for $825,000 by the Chicago White Sox. The Padres then traded for Tatis (as well as Erik Johnson), sending James Shields to the Chicago White Sox for the two pitchers. More than two and a half years after that very lopsided trade and with the recent Eloy Jimenez extension from the Sox setting precedent, Tatis could end up commanding $80+ million seemingly any day now with a potential contract extension. Especially considering how the White Sox handled their Eloy Jimenez situation by signing him to an extension, throwing the idea of starting him out in Triple-A this year right out of the window. The only difference is Tatis has already made the major league roster without an extension.

Fifteen to twenty years ago, hearing of a 6’3 shortstop prospect sticking at the position was almost unheard of. Even today, it is still a somewhat rare occurrence as there are only about six shortstops in MLB this year that fit the criteria (Didi Gregorius, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Jordy Mercer, Erik Gonzalez and Tatis). This is likely to continue with Tatis’ eventual move to third base, due to an expected loss of range as he matures, where his above average 60-grade arm (according to Baseball Prospectus‘ Kevin Cartier and Fangraph‘s Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel) would play up even more where he is expected to end up as an above average defender there. Right now his range is fine, where Tatis is an above average runner and plus when underway, so it may not be until 2020 or 2021 that we will see Tatis get more consistent playing time at third base.

On the offensive side of things, Longenhagen and McDaniel of FanGraphs project him for an average (50) Hit tool, 60 (plus) Game Power and 70 (plus-plus, or double-plus) Raw Power. That projects out to about a perennial .280/30 HR/100 RBI threat.

His first season in the minor leagues in 2016, between two levels (short-season and rookie ball) he combined to hit .273/.311/.432 with 4 home runs and 15 stolen bases in 55 games. As an 18-year-old in Low-A in 2017, where he was over three years younger than the average player, he hit .281/.390/.520 and for a 154 wRC+ (where 100 is average) with 21 home runs and 29 stolen bases to go along with some strong underlying numbers; a 14.5 BB%, 23.9 K% (.6 BB/K), .239 Isolated Power (or ISO, ~.150 is average) and a .342 BABIP (Batting Average On Balls In Play) which doesn’t scream out too much luck or for too much regression, given his uncanny bat-to-ball skills and foot speed. He even finished up the year in AA where in 14 games he struggled towards the finish line with a .255/.281/.327 slash line and a K% nearing 30%. All in all, a very successful year.

Last season, as a 19-year-old in Double-A and nearly five years younger than the average player, he hit .286/.355/.507 for a wRC+ of 133. While not as impressive as the year before at first glance, once considering his age relative to the league’s average and the fact that his power was mostly the same (.221 ISO, only 18 points below 2017), his prospect status only climbed. Tatis would miss the final eight weeks of the 2018 season due to a thumb injury that would require surgery, but would still put up 16 home runs and stolen bases in only 88 games. When healthy, his walk rate fell (8.4%, down from 14.5% in 2017) and he started to strike out a bit more (27.7 last year), as stronger competition started to challenge him more often. You may also remember Tatis knocking a 102.3 mph fastball from Cincinnati’s Hunter Greene into left field for a line-drive single during last year’s Futures game, displaying the tremendous bat speed he wields in his arsenal. His thumb appears to be fully healed as he hit a nice .265/.345/.490 during the spring with three doubles, a triple and two home runs to go along with 6 walks, 13 strikeouts, and 2 stolen bases in 55 plate appearances.

He is also the kind of athlete that plays with a chip on his shoulder and has great makeup skills. If it wasn’t for Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Tatis would be attracting more attention from mainstream fans as well as very likely holding the distinction of being the top position player prospect in all of baseball (Wander Franco of the Rays also says hello). In terms of what we could expect from prime Tatis, I like to look at what his father compiled during his 1999 campaign with the St. Louis Cardinals; a .298/.404/.553 slash line and 34 HR’s 107 RBI’s 104 R’s 21 SB’s. I think a prime Tatis could replicate that performance but with less on-base prowess and by the time he matures into a 30-35 home run hitter, his speed will have likely declined somewhat at that point to where 10 SB’s would be a more reasonable forecast with all of those home runs.

What can we expect from the outset of 2019? Well, he has displayed higher K-rates in the minor leagues than you would like to see, but that is also accompanied by plenty of power to go along with walks. You can possibly expect fewer strikeouts in the future once he adapts as a hitter and refines his approach, considering he was so young for the levels he was playing in at the time. I think his approach at the plate is a bit raw for someone pushed so aggressively through the minor leagues, as evidenced by his high strikeout rates, so there may be a bit of an adjustment period with him to start out 2019. I feel safe projecting him for a .240/.310/.415 slash line to go along with about 15 HR, 15 SB and a solid glove at shortstop this season in just under 500 plate appearances. He is also skipping Triple-A entirely, so we may see him get an extra day off here and there to lessen the toll of a 162 game schedule. His ceiling is quite massive, so I will not be surprised at all if he blows these numbers out of the water just as Juan Soto did during last season. Not too bad of a return for a pitcher who turned in a 5.31 ERA during his stint with the White Sox.

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Featured Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

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