You’ll have to forgive the Padres, as the Giants kind of stole the season they thought they were going to have. While they probably hoped to be jostling with the Dodgers themselves, and still might get to do so in the wildcard game, they’ve fallen off San Francisco’s pace and do have to worry about fending off the Reds in the wildcard chase, even if that worry isn’t much above Defcon-3 right now (a 4.5 game lead).
The biggest detriment to the San Diego revolution has been injuries. Trent Grisham has missed significant time, as has Austin Nola. On the pitching side. Mike Clevinger had a date with a surgical knife, while Yu Darvish, Chris Paddack, and Dinelson Lamet have all spent time on the IL. And it turned out that Blake Snell just isn’t all that good.
But the main injury that has kept the Padres from fully flowering is that MVP candidate Fernando Tatís Jr.’s shoulder has all the stability of a toddler who found a Jolt Cola. And so they’re going to get creative to try and prevent it from slipping out of place again, which quite possibly means moving him to center field.
On the surface, you get it. There are simply fewer plays involving a center fielder than a shortstop, which means fewer chances for him to lay out and make his shoulder joint look like a Saturday night on payday weekend in Muskogee. But the chances of injury are not zero, and Tatís isn’t the type to pull up on a Texas leaguer between him and the infield, or one in the gap. It also raises the chances of Tatís introducing himself to a wall at high speeds, especially considering his instincts for playing the outfield are basically whatever practice he can get in between now and his activation off the IL. Those walls approach awfully quickly and silently when you’re looking at the ball.
There’s little question that Tatís has the athleticism to man center or right and be passable at worst, which is really all he ever was at short. Tatís’ problems at short mainly consisted of his throwing, which is less of an issue in center. He’ll be able to get to anything, and his plus-speed should help him overcome what are sure to be curious routes.
Still, it feels like this only marginally improves Tatís’ odds of not getting hurt. He has hurt his shoulder this season swinging and on the bases, and he’ll still be doing those things (what way do you think the Padres will vote on bringing the DH to the NL next year?). But those risks are inherent to having him in the lineup, and this is the one thing the Padres can do to lower those odds.
It’s going to make for some shuffling in the lineup, which is where this gets weird. Jake Cronenworth figures to move to short with Adam Frazier at second. Cronenworth has played 13 games there this season in Tatís’ absence, his first foray to the position in the majors. 13 games is hardly enough to judge it, but he metrics aren’t pretty so far, with a -18.3 UZR/150 and adding no outs above average according to StatCast. The Padres will clearly accept middling from Cronenworth, who’s got the arm for the position, as they didn’t even get that from Tatís (-4.3 Defensive Runs Saved, according to FanGraphs).
The Padres might not be so tempted to do this if they were getting more out of their outfield. Trent Grisham has been great in both center and at the plate (123 wRC+) but Wil Myers and his missing “L” and Tommy Pham have both been only ok offensively (both with a 108 wRC+). But both have been better than Eric Hosmer, which this move seems to try and protect. The buzz was when the Padres acquired Adam Frazier that Cronenworth would move to first and bump Hosmer out of the lineup, but thanks to their rotating injuries that hasn’t really happened. Hosmer has had a revival at the plate the past six weeks as well, with a .924 OPS in July and a 1.068 in August so far. There’s a lot of noise in those numbers though, as he’s not really hitting the ball any harder or differently than he was earlier in the year. He’s just finding more holes and seeing an abnormal amount of his flies land in someone’s beer.
Likely Tatís will get time in center and right, with Grisham, Myers, and Pham rotating a bit. A straight platoon wouldn’t really fly here though, as Grisham has killed left-handed pitching to the tune of a .939 OPS.
Having too many good players, or players at least capable of being good, for not enough spots is a good problem to have. And positional flexibility is something the Dodgers have used for seasons now to mix and match their lineup. And this assumes everyone can stay healthy, which they certainly haven’t for the Padres all year.
Just keep Fernando away from the wall, though. For all of us.