SAN DIEGO (AP) — El Niño is coming.
It could be quite the storm.
Thursday night at Arizona, Fernando Tatis Jr. will be announced as the leadoff hitter for the San Diego Padres and settle into a big league batter’s box for the first time since the last game of the 2021 season.
One of baseball’s most electrifying players will return from an 80-game PED suspension that shocked and angered his teammates and an entire fan base — and tempered his status as one of the sport’s most prominent and likable stars. If a jaw-dropping power display during a rehab stint at Triple-A El Paso is any indication, the Padres will be getting back the player who was an All-Star at shortstop in 2021, when he led the NL with 42 homers.
Perhaps equally important is the energy and swagger the 24-year-old from the Dominican Republic brings every time he steps on the field, whether it’s hitting tape-measure home runs and then dancing in the dugout, or baserunning exploits that sometimes defy physics.
With his troublesome left shoulder surgically repaired during his suspension, Tatis will play right field and could be the spark the Padres desperately need to overcome a slow start for a lineup that includes fellow superstars Manny Machado, Juan Soto and Xander Bogaerts, and has baseball’s third-highest payroll.
“It’s big, man,” said Bogaerts, who took Tatis’ spot at shortstop when he signed a $280 million, 11-year free agent contract in December. “Time heals a lot. What I’ve seen so far is someone who wants to come in and show everyone that he’s still the real deal and what he did was a mistake and he wants to show that he’s matured from that.”
Tatis’ maturity has been under a microscope since the then-22-year-old signed a $330 million, 14-year contract prior to the 2021 season, starting with an unusual scene that September when Machado screamed at Tatis that “it’s not about you!” during a dugout confrontation. He broke his left wrist the next offseason — reportedly in a motorcycle accident in his native Dominican Republic. He was on the cusp of returning from that when his PED suspension was announced on Aug. 12. He blamed his positive test on a cream he said he used for ringworm.
He ended up missing all of San Diego’s season, including a stirring run to the NL Championship Series.
Right-hander Joe Musgrove was one of the team leaders who called out Tatis at the time. Musgrove made a rehab start for El Paso last week and said Tatis “looks great. He’s anxious. His energy is really high, he’s being a good teammate down there, he’s engaged, all the things that you want to see from him.
“I know he’s extremely excited to get back and especially with us not coming out of the gates as hot as everyone might have expected, I know he’s itching to get back in there and try to make a difference.”
Tatis sent ripples through baseball when he hit three home runs and had eight RBIs while going 5 for 6 Thursday night for El Paso. He was 17 of 33 with seven homers and 15 RBIs in eight rehab games, slashing .515/.590/1.212.
“For me personally, I’ve been waiting for this Tatis thing for a while,” said second-year manager Bob Melvin. “I’m really looking forward to that. I want to write his name in the lineup card and he wants to get back in the lineup, so it’s exciting.”
Melvin said he learned during spring training that Tatis absolutely belongs in the leadoff spot.
“He’s the type of guy who takes pressure off other guys. He’s a bright-lights guy,” the manager said. “There’s just an energy he brings. I hit him in different spots and then the first day he led off, it was like, there was just something different about it. I can’t explain it.”
Tatis grew up in the game at the feet of his father, who played 11 seasons in the big leagues, and his nickname, “El Niño,” means “little boy” in Spanish. It’s also the name of a weather pattern that brings rain. Tatis was back at Petco Park on Monday, raining long batting practice home runs from left field to straightaway center.
Tatis and his teammates know the superstar will be heckled.
Early in Tatis’ rehab stint, San Francisco Giants minor leaguer Kade McClure called him a “cheater” on Twitter after allowing a mammoth home run to the suspended player.
At FanFest in February, Tatis said he has already dealt with negative fan reaction on the road during his career “and I’m definitely looking forward to that challenge” in what he said would be both a fun and emotional season.
DH Nelson Cruz, 42, a fellow Dominican, has known Tatis since he was a kid. Cruz was suspended 50 games in August 2013 for his connection to the Biogenesis case and knows what Tatis will face.
“We’re here to support him, we’re here to embrace him, we’re going to show our love and we’re going to be behind him no matter what happens,” Cruz said.
Corey Stewart, a Padres fan for 40 years, said he was “shocked and furious” when Tatis was suspended, but has since forgiven the star, which is the overwhelming sentiment in San Diego. “All I want is a ring. I want a World Series and having him back and him being the exciting and insane player he is, will help them get that,” said Stewart, 52.
Owner Peter Seidler made a quick trip to Sacramento during Tatis’ rehab stint to have lunch with El Niño and watch him play. Seidler will be in Phoenix on Thursday night.
During spring training, Seidler said he expects “greatness” from Tatis. “I think his trajectory is really positive. I believe in the young man, period. He’s going to be, I think, an even better version of himself. It’s going to be fun.”
Bogaerts is looking forward to sharing in Tatis’ vibe.
“Give me some. Especially on days that you don’t feel good, I’ll be like, ’Ignite me!” the shortstop said with a smile.