Fernando Tatis Jr.’s arrival at spring training came with unexpected news: During the offseason, the San Diego Padres All-Star shortstop suffered a broken left wrist that likely will need surgery.
Tatis apparently suffered the injury months ago but felt it worsen when he began preparing to report, according to San Diego general manager AJ Preller.
How did this happen? What does it mean for the megadeal Tatis signed last spring? And where do the Padres go from here?
ESPN MLB reporters Alden Gonzalez and Jesse Rogers weigh in on everything you need to know about the fallout from Tatis’ injury.
So … Fernando Tatis showed up to spring training with a wrist injury?
He sure did. The X-rays Tatis took as part of his entrance physical Sunday — the one everybody undergoes when they report for spring training — revealed a fractured scaphoid bone in his left wrist. A couple days earlier, after the new collective bargaining agreement was ratified and the lockout was lifted, Tatis gave the Padres a heads up that his left wrist had been bothering him for a couple of weeks. In follow-up tests, doctors learned that the injury might have been « a few months old » and that he simply aggravated it as he ramped up his offseason training, particularly his hitting. The Padres, however, had no real way of knowing he was dealing with this. Why? Because the MLB-imposed lockout, which began Dec. 2 and lasted 99 days, prevented teams from communicating with their players. A situation like this is precisely what every executive feared on reporting day. Tatis acknowledged that if not for the lockout, « It definitely could’ve been a different story. »
Well, how’d it happen?
Yeah…about that. Back in early December, Tatis fell off a motorcycle in his native Dominican Republic. Reports at the time were that he sustained only minor scrapes. The Padres, who were basically privy to only third-party information at the time, were under the same impression. Tatis was, too, saying that for the next week or two his wrist felt « jammed, » not unlike what happens when he slides too hard into second base. It didn’t feel like anything that would ultimately require surgery. Then about a month ago, the pain resurfaced. And as Tatis’ offseason workouts became more rigorous, the pain only intensified. Now, was the wrist injury directly tied to that motorcycle accident? It seems like the most probable outcome, but Preller stopped short of saying that. Tatis said it « could’ve been anything » and indicated he had another fall during the offseason (that other fall, the Padres believe, occurred during training and was not the result of another motorcycle accident).
How big a deal is this for the Padres?
The Padres are built to win now. And there was a sense, after they flamed out in epic fashion last season, that if they didn’t reach the postseason in 2022, or at least play meaningful games down the stretch, that ownership might have to scale back on payroll. The Padres carried a then-franchise-record $174 million payroll on Opening Day last year, blowing by the previous mark by $64 million, and are approaching $200 million for 2022. Tatis’ energy sets a noticeable tone, his talent transcends the sport. And now, given the near-certainty that he will undergo surgery before the end of the week, he’ll probably miss at least the first three months of the season, perhaps even the entire first half. To put that in perspective: Last year, while Tatis was putting the finishing touches on an MVP-caliber season, the Padres went from 15 games over .500 to three games below .500 in a span of three months. It can happen that quickly, especially within a National League West that features the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants.
Do they have any recourse?
Perhaps. Standard major league contracts guarantee players their full salaries so long as they meet certain criteria, some of which involves avoiding potentially dangerous activities, such as bungee jumping, snowmobiling, piloting and a long list of others (Jai-alai? Fencing? Harness racing? ) — including, yes, motorcycling. Tatis would apparently be in violation of his contract if he sustained the wrist injury while riding a motorcycle, but: Can the Padres prove that? And most importantly: Do they really want to go down that path?
As an initial step, a team that wants to address this will usually approach the player about the violation and suggest that they withhold some of his pay as punishment. But the player, his agency and the MLB Players Association would have to agree, and that is usually unlikely, especially when so much gray area exists, a source with direct knowledge of this process said.
The more extreme scenario would be attempting to turn the remainder of the deal into a non-guaranteed contract, clearing the path for a release. The MLBPA, of course, would immediately file a grievance. And it’s highly unlikely that the team would win out. Another mechanism is a transactional one — placing the player on the restricted list, under which he is not paid, and then putting the onus on the player to file a grievance.
How often do teams act on them?
It’s extremely rare. Steroid users haven’t had their contracts voided, even with even those in trouble with the law. The players’ union would fight almost any attempt. Teams would need rock-solid proof the player violated the Uniform Players Contract (UPC), then be willing to say goodbye to the player. If he’s a star, that’s not likely to happen. Perhaps, if he was on a one-year deal and got injured for a period of months, after disregarding the UPC, then a team might act to void the contract. It’s pretty much what happened to Aaron Boone with the Yankees in 2004. He tore his ACL playing basketball in January, leading New York to cut him and his $5.75 million contract for that season. He was given termination pay of $917,553 and became a free agent.
Other sports have similar restrictions. In 2003, Chicago Bulls guard Jay Williams crashed his motorcycle, essentially suffering career-ending injuries. The Bulls paid medical expenses but cut him, leaving over $7 million on the table. If he had been hurt on the basketball court, he would have received his full salary.
So… are the Padres going to?
They are not expected to, for several reasons. 1. They can’t necessarily prove that Tatis’ injury is a direct result of his motorcycle accident. 2. The amount of money they would probably recoup in a best-case scenario is negligible relative to their payroll. 3. None of this would be worth harmonizing a relationship with their franchise player, especially not a 23-year-old who is signed through the 2034 season. The Padres have no interest in voiding Tatis’ contract. At this moment, it doesn’t appear as if they have any plans to try to institute a fine, either.
What happens from here for Tatis, then?
The Padres’ hope is that this experience has taught him something about navigating his offseasons more carefully. Tatis has assured the Padres that he will no longer ride motorcycles. They hope he keeps his word.
« From my perspective, I trust and believe in Fernando, » Padres owner Peter Seidler said Tuesday. « People get injured. And he’ll be back when his medicals clear. It’s part of sports. The most important thing to me is I believe in this young man, and I think once he’s medically cleared, he’s going to have another awesome year and career with us. »
OK, back to the Padres…what are they going to do at shortstop?
The Padres are committed to staying in-house at shortstop, a source close to the situation said, and that mostly means one name: Ha-seong Kim. Kim is a 26-year-old middle infielder who was signed to a four-year, $28 million contract out of South Korea last offseason. Last year, he showed he has the ability to be a plus defender in the big leagues but struggled mightily on offense, batting .202/.270/.352 in 298 plate appearances. Scouts say he struggled to adapt to major league velocity, a common problem for players coming out of Japan or Korea, and wonder if he’ll hit to replacement level in the big leagues. The Padres, still in search of a corner outfielder or designated hitter, desperately need him to. CJ Abrams, their top prospect, is a 21-year-old with fewer than 350 professional plate appearances and is probably not ready to handle everyday shortstop in the major leagues at the start of April. Another option could be moving Jake Cronenworth to shortstop, but that would open up a hole at second base just as moving Manny Machado over would at third base.