With more change ahead for Padres, Fernando Tatis Jr. faces a major decision of his own
SAN FRANCISCO — Jake Cronenworth hasn’t slid headfirst in years, at least not intentionally. He last did so in 2013, when as a freshman infielder-pitcher at the University of Michigan he awoke one morning and could not lift his right arm above his head. He later learned that an accumulation of things had resulted in a torn labrum.
“It wasn’t dislocated,” Cronenworth, now a Padres second baseman, said of his throwing shoulder. “I think (it was) just wear-and-tear throughout the year.”
Cronenworth was speaking Friday at Oracle Park, before the final series of a collective trainwreck of a season. Amid the Padres’ disappointment, there have been moments and stretches of individual brilliance. Cronenworth, for example, has established himself as an All-Star. Third baseman Manny Machado has played through a lingering left shoulder injury while supplying trademark defense and 28 home runs. And another infielder, Fernando Tatis Jr., has navigated a handful of shoulder dislocations to remain in contention for the National League MVP award.
Where Tatis will finish in the voting, which position he will play next season, what course of action he will take with a slightly torn labrum — these are some of the more compelling questions that hang over a team about to wade into an offseason of uncertainty. The Padres on Saturday described a report that Jayce Tingler will be fired as “completely premature,” but it is widely expected that the manager, along with most of his coaching staff, will soon be dismissed.
Meanwhile, the club’s biggest star is nearing a decision about his left shoulder. His choice could have significant ramifications for the Padres’ fortunes in 2022.
For now, Tatis continues to show a clear preference in one direction.
“I haven’t sat down with (president of baseball operations A.J. Preller) and the doctors, but I feel like everyone’s in a positive way about not taking the surgery,” the shortstop said Friday. “But we’ll see. We’ll see. I feel like I’m in a great spot, my shoulder’s in a great spot and I’m very secure in where I’m at right now.”
Two of Tatis’ teammates — Cronenworth and Jurickson Profar — and associate manager Skip Schumaker have had a shoulder procedure similar to the one many in the medical community suggest Tatis should have. Schumaker, a former major leaguer, has had his left labrum surgically repaired twice — in 2000 and, more recently, in 2014.
But, Schumaker said earlier this summer, “everyone is different and bodies are different. Tatis will have to trust his group and the front office and medical team, and make a decision based on all the information.”
Schumaker first dislocated his left shoulder diving into second base during a college baseball game. He was playing for UC Santa Barbara and he was 20 years old, not much younger than Tatis is now. Schumaker underwent surgery that year and received a medical redshirt. He batted .400 the next spring and went on to have an 11-season big-league career that wound down amid some level of discomfort; during a Cactus League game with Cincinnati, Schumaker dove for a fly ball and separated his non-throwing shoulder again, 14 years after the first injury.
In September 2014, he had another operation. Eighteen months later, while in spring training with the Padres on a minor-league deal, he opted to retire.
“Surgery went really well for me, the first shoulder surgery but not the second,” Schumaker said. “Everyone’s different. … (Former Cardinals teammate) Scott Rolen after surgery was different. And then there’s guys that have surgery that feel way better. Everybody is different, how they react to it.”
Cronenworth described his own outcome as “really good.” He underwent surgery on July 3, 2013, after a two-way campaign for Michigan that landed him on Baseball America’s Freshman All-America first team. Seven months later, he started at third base in the Wolverines’ season opener and went 2-for-4. He made his season debut as a pitcher less than three weeks later, earning a win with two scoreless innings. He ended his sophomore spring with a 1.75 ERA and a .268 batting average.
“Hitting was fine,” Cronenworth said. “I finished (my swing with) two hands anyway, so it was a little easier.”
Profar endured a longer, tougher road.
In 2010, his first year in pro ball, the then-shortstop felt something in his throwing shoulder while taking a swing. The sensation, Profar said, soon disappeared, and he spent the next two seasons emerging as the sport’s consensus No. 1 prospect. Then, during winter ball in the Dominican Republic, he felt a twinge in his shoulder again. He returned home to Curaçao and began his offseason lifting program. Then he encountered a painful roadblock.
“When I started throwing, I couldn’t throw,” Profar said.
Profar missed the entire 2014 season. He initially elected against surgery, hoping he would be able to play in 2015. But that February, he could no longer delay the inevitable.
The subsequent labrum repair sidelined Profar for a second consecutive season. He never regained his top-prospect luster, and he was eventually moved off shortstop. Now, Profar is a utility player hitting .227. Yet shoulder surgery might have been what kept his career alive.
“It was bad, but I had to do it,” Profar said. “It was my right (shoulder). (Tatis’) is his left one. And I couldn’t throw a baseball. So, I had to do it.”
Indeed, Tatis’ decision does not appear so clear-cut. He has partially dislocated his shoulder on at least five occasions this calendar year, and he has come back each time with uncommon force. He has altered multiple facets of his playing style — from the way he finishes his swing, to the way he slides, to his defensive assignments on the field — and, through 129 appearances, he is hitting .284/.366/.615 with 42 home runs. On Wednesday at Dodger Stadium, he became just the fifth player to hit a homer out of that ballpark. On Friday, he became the youngest player in major-league history to log a season with at least 30 doubles, 40 homers and 25 steals.
“A lot of ups and downs … a lot of injuries,” Tatis said, reflecting on his year. “But just the way I bounced back in that area, just really proud of myself. … Just can’t wait for a real season — I mean without being on the injured list.”
Tatis’ ability to play a full season will hinge in large part on the health of his left shoulder. He last dislocated it July 30 while bracing himself with his left arm as he slid feet-first into third base. Since his mid-August return, he has made his professional debut in the outfield — an attempt at lessening his injury risk — and worn a harness on his shoulder. According to some experts, however, such measures are only temporary remedies.
“He’s obviously an incredible athlete, and nothing in medicine is 100 percent, but I don’t think that there is a good chance that he’s going to be able to have a stable shoulder without surgical intervention,” said Dr. Brian Lee, an orthopedic surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles who has not treated Tatis. “The labrum is the main stabilizer to keep that ball in the socket. Because that’s torn, he’s going to have continued problems without surgical intervention.
“Especially in somebody his age, even if he wasn’t a professional athlete, he should have his shoulder stabilized. This is something that I would recommend to just a non-athletic 22-year-old.”
Arthroscopic labrum repair often comes with an estimated recovery period of six to eight months. If Tatis were to get the procedure immediately after the season, he might be ready to play shortly after Opening Day 2022. Still, no surgery is without risk.
“The return to play for these types of surgeries is generally pretty good,” Lee said. “Returning to the same level of play is not as great. So while a return to play is generally about 90 percent, returning to the same level is probably around 80 percent.”
Last month, Tatis said, “I don’t want to put a (knife) in my body.” This weekend, he seemed to maintain an anti-surgery stance. Those close with Tatis say he can be especially stubborn, a quality not uncommon in the most talented athletes.
While a full deliberation has yet to take place, the Padres have at least signaled a willingness to consider Tatis’ wishes. “I think it’s super encouraging where he’s at physically right now,” Tingler said Friday. And Tatis has resumed spending the bulk of his time at shortstop.
Both men agreed it should be his primary position in 2022.
“(Preller) signed a shortstop, and he’s going to have a shortstop,” said Tatis, who received a 14-year, $340 million extension in February. “That’s the plan so far, and I’m not planning on moving for a very long time from there.”
“I see it personally, going forward, getting through this season healthy, having a healthy offseason, being able to stick at short and … be a steady anchor there,” Tingler said. “Are there days he can run out to the outfield? Absolutely. But I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t be at shortstop.”
Of course, Tingler might not be around for those sorts of discussions. Last weekend, the Padres were eliminated from postseason contention. On Saturday, they ended a seven-game losing streak with a 3-2 win against the Giants. That made them 12-33 in their past 45 games, the worst team in the National League over that span.
“It’s been really hard,” Tatis said. “Us not making the playoffs, it was just a dagger straight to the heart.”
Many expect Preller to relieve Tingler of his duties soon after Sunday’s season finale. And regardless of any personnel moves, another major decision looms ahead. Soon, with input from the team and others, the franchise shortstop must elect whether to go under the knife.
Source: The Athletic