SAN DIEGO — Fernando Tatis Jr. spent his Friday out in the community, visiting children at a local elementary school and spending time with members of the United States Marine Corps as part of the San Diego Padres‘ goodwill tour throughout the city. The following morning, he was back inside Petco Park, taking part in a fan fest event that was attended by tens of thousands of the team’s most ardent supporters, signing autographs, snapping selfies and making the media rounds.
After an entire season away — and with the cloud of a steroid suspension still hanging overhead — Tatis was back, once again a celebrated member of one of the sport’s most star-studded teams.
“I missed it a lot,” Tatis said. “I missed a year of it, and I’m not looking forward to missing any more.”
Tatis, who will serve the remaining 20 games of his 80-game suspension at the start of the 2023 regular season, estimated being “90 percent” recovered from recent shoulder and wrist surgeries and has been taking part in baseball activities for about a month.
The Padres’ first full-squad workout will take place in 17 days, and Tatis plans on being a full participant from the onset.
But what position will he play?
“I got to talk to my manager,” Tatis said with a laugh.
The Padres went into the offseason with two premium shortstops in Tatis and Ha-seong Kim, who provided Gold Glove-caliber defense at the position in 2022, but they nonetheless signed free agent shortstop Xander Bogaerts to an 11-year, $280 million contract.
With Bogaerts playing shortstop on a regular basis, Kim is expecting to play mostly second base, which means Jake Cronenworth will see a lot of time at first.
Tatis, meanwhile, projects to be something of a regular in either left or right field, with Juan Soto occupying the opposite corner.
“Whatever it takes, I’ll do it,” said Tatis, who has been taking both fly balls and ground balls this offseason.
Padres manager Bob Melvin is still noncommittal.
“Once we get to spring training, we’ll start moving guys around a little bit,” Melvin said. “But he’s ready to play the outfield if we need him to.”
Tatis is still only a month removed from his 24th birthday, with 12 years and $324 million remaining on a Padres extension that was once deemed a “statue contract.” Not long ago, he was widely hailed as the forthcoming face of baseball.
Then 2022 happened.
Tatis began spring training last year recovering from a wrist injury that likely stemmed from an offseason motorcycle accident, then tested positive for Clostebol, a synthetic form of testosterone, near the middle of August, just as he was finally making his way back from injury.
Tatis watched from afar as the Padres made a deep postseason run, beating the New York Mets and the division-rival Los Angeles Dodgers before finally being eliminated by the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League Championship Series.
“That gave me a lot of fuel, trust me,” Tatis said during an 11-minute media scrum, half of which was conducted in Spanish. “I don’t want to put too much words into it. I more just want to prove myself in the field, just get back to the field with my boys. I definitely miss that fire just being in the jungle with them.”
Bolstered by a franchise-record $240 million payroll, the 2023 Padres will boast a lineup featuring Tatis, Bogaerts, Soto and star third baseman Manny Machado, that will be backed by a pitching staff headlined by the likes of Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove, Blake Snell and Josh Hader.
They’ll face the weight of grand expectations — and one of their biggest stars will face the vitriol of opposing crowds.
“It’s going to be one of the most emotional years, I feel like, in my career,” Tatis said of potentially being booed on the road. “I’m looking to embrace it.”
At full health, Tatis has proven to be one of the most electrifying players in the sport. In 273 games from 2019 to 2021, he batted .292/.369/.596 with 81 home runs, 52 stolen bases and 13.6 Baseball-Reference wins above replacement, finishing within the top five in NL MVP voting on two separate occasions.
But injuries to his back and to his left shoulder plagued him early. And in recent months, Padres coaches, players and executives have found themselves wondering if they can trust him with the responsibility of being the face of a franchise.
Tatis’ first step in restoring that trust came Aug. 23, when he spoke to his teammates and took questions from the media for the first time since his suspension. Shortly thereafter, he opted to surgically repair the left shoulder that bothered him throughout the 2021 season and also underwent a second procedure to further repair the fractured scaphoid bone in his left wrist.
Soon, he’ll comply to a new position.
Then he’ll go about regaining trust on the field once more.
“I’ve really learned from what happened to me in the last year,” Tatis said. “I’m really looking forward to redeeming myself.”