Sports

Of Course This Would Happen to the Padres

After losing Fernando Tatis Jr. for the year, will they stay in the hunt—or revert back to being the Padres?

Tatis looks dejectedly into the middle distance, with his mouth open and arms akimbo
Fernando Tatis Jr. after striking out looking during the third inning against the Dodgers at Petco Park on Aug. 25, 2021, in San Diego. Denis Poroy/Getty Images

Customarily, the San Diego Padres do not feature in headlines about Major League Baseball come mid-August. The Friars are perennial losers, usually good for 70-something wins with a cheap roster and barely a sniff of the postseason, an event they’ve only appeared in once since 2006—and the one was in 2020, a shortened season. They are one of MLB’s relative anonymities not just because they lose a lot, but because they live in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ shadow in multiple respects and have not had a frontline superstar since the days of Tony Gwynn in the 1980s and ’90s. Slate means no disrespect to the peak years of Adrián González at first base or Jake Peavy atop the starting rotation, and certainly not to the latter years of Trevor Hoffman’s Hall of Fame closing career. But the Padres have lacked juice.

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This year is something much different. The Padres, at least for now, are the most talkaboutable team in baseball, for reasons that were mostly good and are, all of a sudden, bad. The club has decided to really go for it, not just this fall but apparently over the next couple as well. At the start of the month, they swung quite possibly the biggest trade deadline deal ever, parting with a handful of serious prospects and young major leaguers to get Washington Nationals right fielder Juan Soto. Putting aside the pity that was the Nationals deciding to trade a 23-year-old remake of Ted Williams, the Padres were declaring their intentions to contend not just this October, but in 2023 and 2024 too, seasons in which they also control Soto’s rights. A slide in the past two weeks has reduced the Padres’ chances of getting a National League Wild Card slot from “basically a lock” to something more in the 80 percent range. The Padres are in one of baseball’s “small markets,” which tends to be ownerspeak for a justification not to invest in high-end talent. But they have a top-five 2022 payroll, a good team around Soto, and the whole world in front of them. They are currently the standard for how nontraditional MLB powers could go about trying to win.

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Now gravity is pulling the Padres down. Their franchise player is shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., a 23-year-old who’s finished fourth and third in MVP voting the past two years. Tatis has not played all season, as he has nursed the left wrist that he broke in an offseason motorcycle crash. His return was supposed to be close at hand, but now it won’t happen until 2023, because he tested positive for Clostebol, a drug that MLB and its players union have banned as a performance enhancer. It’s a brutal twist for the Padres, who figured they would get Tatis back as their only post–trade deadline lineup addition whose impact could rival that of his new teammate, Soto. They will not, and now the team is in an unprecedented limbo, where they’ve built their best roster in years, will only have it fully intact for a few months, and will now need to take their shot with a weaker gun than they thought. No team in baseball will be more fascinating through October.

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The Tatis suspension is a blow to San Diego, but it’s not an automatic death sentence. There are not many players his equal, but last year’s World Series winners, the Atlanta Braves, lost one of them, center fielder Ronald Acuña Jr., in mid-July (to a torn ACL, not steroids) and found enough production to win anyway. The Padres have gotten a great year out of Tatis’ replacement at shortstop Kim Ha-seong, and their lineup still includes not just Soto but Manny Machado, the 30-year-old megastar who is having one of his best seasons. The Soto deal also brought an upgrade at first base: Josh Bell, who hits for a lot of power and gives the Padres a much better option than the handsomely compensated–but-now-bad Eric Hosmer. They made other big moves, too, gaining terrifying closer Josh Hader and lefty-mashing infielder Brandon Drury.

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Tatis’ absence does not mean much for a pitching staff that has chugged along just fine without him all year. The Padres were 10th in the league in earned-run average entering Sunday and seventh in FanGraphs’ wins above replacement, proof that they don’t just feast on playing in an extreme pitcher’s park. There is no version of reality in which any baseball team is better without Tatis than with him, but his suspension at least means that Kim will hold down shortstop. He is a sparkling defender who belongs at such a premium position. It will help the pitchers that he’ll get to stay there:

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That is the good news: The Padres spent a few years putting together a roster that can certainly make the playoffs and might be able to go far in them, and the team has shown for four months that it is competitive without Tatis. His positive test is deflating, but it doesn’t undo the Soto trade, the big contract the franchise gave Machado in free agency a few years ago, or anything else.

There is, alas, a much grimmer path that the Tatis suspension could lead the Padres down. That path goes something like this: The Padres run out of gas either in the regular season or early in the postseason and are unable to reach the divisional round of the playoffs. Bell leaves in free agency, and the pitching staff that’s been so good this year loses a lot of steam for varying reasons: Rookie and former top prospect MacKenzie Gore was part of the price to pay for Soto. One of the staff aces, Yu Darvish, will be 36. Rotation-mates Sean Manaea and Mike Clevinger are free agents like Bell. Essentially, shit happens, the way it so often has to the Padres throughout their history. In addition to being relegated to the wild card hunt this year, in 2023 they find themselves miles behind the Dodgers, whom owner Peter Seidler calls “the dragon up the freeway that we’re trying to slay.” Machado (signed through 2028) and Tatis (2034) remain part of the fold, but Soto exits via free agency in 2025 (or trade in 2024), and this Cinderella story becomes less heartwarming as time goes on. The Padres revert to being the Padres.

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None of that needs to happen. It’s a worst case-scenario. But the reason to bring it up is that the Padres are, at the moment, exceptional. MLB teams work hard to provide as little information about their finances as possible, but at least by media market size and the likely value of their local TV deal, the Padres share a weight class with teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates, Kansas City Royals, Cleveland Guardians, and Cincinnati Reds—organizations that instead of making free agent and trade deadline splashes have often torn down talented teams to rebuild them on the cheap. It is great that the Padres are making an honest-to-goodness effort to play in the biggest part of the big leagues. If they don’t make a deep pennant run with the ever-more-fleeting constellation of Machado, Tatis, and Soto, maybe they won’t pack it in and try to rebuild via multiyear teardown. But that is the history and the present of how most teams in the Padres’ situation would act. As a fan not of the Padres but of one of those teams that is usually their peer (the Pirates), that is the most harrowing thing about the timing of Tatis’ suspension: If the Padres’ grand plan works, other teams might follow it. If it doesn’t, they definitely will not, and the lack of Tatis makes the Padres’ project much harder to complete.

None of that is the immediate concern of the Padres or their fans. Everyone involved is now in uncharted waters, not just in the sense that the Padres are relevant and good as September approaches but that they’re facing an artisanal blend of adversity that someone may as well have designed in a lab to remind them of their usual place in the baseball order. The team might well succumb to it, but it is refreshing that they put enough good players on one roster that failure is not a foregone conclusion.

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