Sac Bunt Dustin’s Top 11 Padres Prospects

It’s June and the Padres are 31–45; that means it’s the time of the year when mid-season prospect list start popping up. Last week Padres ProspectusEast Village Times, and Phillip unveiled lengthy and well-done Padres prospect lists, and somewhere in his east coast palatial estate David Marver is (apparently) working on a top 110 or something. I figured, what the heck, here’s mine.

(all stats through some point this weekend)

11. Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, Single-A Fort Wayne

You might glance at Fernando Tatis Jr.’s numbers and wonder what all the fuss is about. Tatis is hitting “just” .260/.338/.430 in 296 plate appearances. He’s striking out 26.3 percent of the time and walking 9.5 percent of the time. He has 12 steals in 20 tries. There are two things here:

1. Once you adjust for age, those numbers are quite good. In the Midwest league there are only 11 18-year-old position players. Of them, only offensive wunderkind Vladimir Gurerro Jr. has a higher wRC+ than Tatis (146 to 116). Keibert Ruiz is tied with Tatis, but five of the others—including teammates Jack Suwinski, Hudson Potts, and Reinaldo Ilarraza—have figures of 80 or lower. Flip over to the South Atlantic League, the Midwest League’s east coast cousin, and it’s more of the same. There are only two 18-year-old position players there, and neither has a wRC+ better than 110.

Going back to 2010, here’s a list of players 18 and under who have posted a wRC+ of 120 or better in the Midwest league:

Jake Bauers (!)
Willy Adames
Carlos Correa

That’s it.

Good list, short list. A couple of years didn’t have a single (qualified) 18-year-old. Tatis is faring well against older pitchers in a league that isn’t necessarily kind to his sort. It’s a promising start performance-wise.

2. The numbers don’t really matter that much. Alright, I don’t really mean that, but the lower you go in the minors, the less weight you put on the statistics. Tatis is just 18, getting his first look at full-season ball. Whether he ends the season with a .700 OPS or a .800 OPS, well, it’s not a huge deal; there will be plenty of time for growth and adjustments, ups and downs. Regardless of his success in the Midwest League, he’ll have to prove it at higher levels, against better pitching. At the same time, regardless of any failures in the Midwest League, he’ll have ample time to improve once he gains experience.

I’d argue that for the levels below High-A, the general scouting consensus matters more than performance, often by a lot. Once you get to High-A, maybe it’s 50-50. Once you get to Double-A and Triple-A, on-field performance starts to take precedence.

10. Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, Single-A Fort Wayne

The scouting consensus is a hard thing to figure. Talking to major-league scouts on the reg isn’t exactly something that’s in the tool shed of your typical blogger. Instead, we generally get second-hand information from places like Baseball America and Keith Law—people who do talk to real-life scouts—while mixing in reports from first-hand observers that pop up at places like Baseball Prospectus and Twitter.

The scouting consensus on Tatis is mixed, best we can tell. Prior to the season, Baseball America—in what I’d call an extremely conservative ranking—slotted him in as the 17th-best prospect in the Padres system. In a chat that came out with their top 10 list, BA’s Kyle Glaser was bullish on Tatis at times, but also noted that he wasn’t even in consideration for the top 10 and that he had a long way to go.

Recently, Baseball Prospectus’ Nathan Graham turned in a lukewarm scouting report on Tatis, grading only his running tool above a 50 on the 20-to-80 scouting scale. The two biggest concerns noted were Tatis’ hit tool, which is currently his biggest question mark, and the likelihood that he’ll eventually move off short. Those are the same two concerns mentioned by FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen back in November.

On the other end of the spectrum, Keith Law put out his national top 100 list in the middle of April, and he ranked Tatis No. 37 in all of baseball, one spot ahead of Vlad Junior. If I remember correctly, Law hadn’t even seen Tatis as of that ranking, so it’s purely (or mostly) based on the scouts he talks to; obviously he’s not talking to the same scouts as Baseball America. (Though it’s fair to note that Law had the benefit of spring training and a few additional professional games.)

Like Law, Twitter’s Chris Kusiolek is also a big fan:

9. Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, Single-A Fort Wayne

The top three prospects in the Midwest League are Tatis, Vlad Jr., and Bo Bichette. Bichette’s a 19-year-old with a slash line—.392/.457/.629—that makes even Guerrero’s look pedestrian. There’s something in common about all three players, though, something you’ve probably already picked up. All three had fathers who were prominent big leaguers: Fernando Tatis, Vladimir Guerrero, and Dante Bichette.

I’m not sure that being a son of a big leaguer means all that much when it comes to succeeding in the majors, but it’s an interesting wrinkle at least. And it probably can’t hurt. Knowing that a player’s father succeeded in the big leagues seems like a good thing, both from a nature and nurture standpoint. The genes are there, obviously, and while they might not translate the same way they did with pops, well, they just might. Further, Tatis got to grow up with a big-league dad, which presumably put him around baseball at a young age and got him better-than-average instruction from the get-go.

8. Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, Single-A Fort Wayne

Tatis is a shortstop. The Padres haven’t had a good, reliable shortstop in forever. Everth Cabrera was good, here and there, but not so much reliable. And the Khalil Greene Era feels a long time gone; his last good season in San Diego was a decade ago. Efforts to find other shortstops in the last 10 years have mostly gone terribly wrong. Veterans like Miguel Tejada, Jason Bartlett, and Alexei Ramirez never quite clicked, and Alexi Amarista was masqueraded as a regular for too long. On the farm, there were position changes (Franchy Cordero), pure flameouts (Matt Bush), longer shots who just didn’t work out (Jonathan Galvez, Lance Zawadzki), and trades (Trea Turner, Jace Peterson).

Currently, the farm system is littered with shortstops, but none are clear successors to the vacant throne. Jose Rondon just got called-up to Triple-A and he might be in line for a big-league assignment soon enough, but he’s OPSed just .731 in a long minor-league career, and he doesn’t exactly have much prospect panache left. Luis Urias is a shortstop in name only, and he’ll likely transition to second full-time at some point. Javier Guerra is slick defensively but lost offensively, and repeating the Cal League. The rest—players like Ilarraza, Luis Almanzar, Gabriel Arias, Justin Lopez—are too far away to get too excited about yet.

Tatis has the best chance to become an actual, everyday shortstop. Say it slowly:

Fernando Tatis is the shortstop of the future

Fernando Tatis is the shortstop of the future

Fernando Tatis is the . . .

7. Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, Single-A Fort Wayne

But can he stick at the position? So far most reports on Tatis’ work at shortstop indicate that he’s a good, solid defender. Longenhagen said that he has “shortstop actions and a future 70 arm.” Others have noted that he’s surprisingly smooth for a big shortstop, and that he can make the highlight-reel play. However, almost every report on Tatis’ defense says that he’ll likely have to move from shortstop eventually, especially if he gets any bigger.

These reports may not be wrong, and they certainly make sense. Big dudes generally don’t stick at shortstop—shoot, nobody generally sticks at shortstop—a position that profiles for smaller, more agile infielders. Then again, check out FanGraphs’ WAR leaderboard for shortstops:

Corey Seager, 3.2 WAR, 6-foot-4, 215
Zack Cozart, 2.8 WAR, 6-foot, 195
Xander Bogaerts, 2.8 WAR, 6-foot-1, 210
Carlos Correa, 2.6 WAR, 6-foot-4, 215
Andrelton Simmons, 2.1 WAR, 6-foot-2, 200

Three of the top five current shortstops are within an inch of Tatis, who’s listed at 6-foot-3, 185 pounds. (He’s actually 6-3, 200, according to him.) Even if he grows an inch and adds 15 pounds, he’d still be the same (listed) size as Corey Seager and Carlos Correa.

Here’s Baseball America on Correa in 2012: “There’s some concern he’ll outgrow shortstop as he matures physically. If so, scouts expect him to be a premium defender if he has to slide to third base.”

And here’s BA on Seager in 2012: “He has soft hands and the arm to stay on the left side of the infield. Seager likely will face a move to third base at some point, but the Dodgers will keep him at shortstop for now.”

And, finally, here’s Longenhagen on Tatis in 2017: “He has shortstop actions and a future 70 arm, but he’ll almost certainly need to move to third base eventually as his large frame fills in and he slows down.”

I’m not saying Tatis will stick at short because Seager and Correa did; every player is different, yadayada. What does seem clear is that tall, physical players are being given every shot to remain at short these days.

For one, these types are big and strong, which generally means they have plus arms. Further, though, in an age of extreme shifting, perhaps teams are willing to cover up defensive shortcomings with precise positioning, trading some defensive value for flashier offense at a tough-to-fill position. Moreover, with fewer and fewer balls in play, defense at short is not quite as valuable as it once was.

Tatis already has 32 errors in 95 professional starts, so it’s clear that he has some work to do to clean up his defensive skills. Still, he’s made a number of exciting plays at short—some added by his height—and he has plenty of time to iron out the kinks.

6. Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, Single-A Fort Wayne

The great thing about being an athletic 6-foot-3 shortstop is that a switch to pretty much any position is in play. The most likely landing spot for Tatis, if he doesn’t stay at short, is third base. From most reports, he’d easily have the arm to handle the hot corner while still having plus range for a third sacker.

I’ve made the comparison before, and maybe it’s a little bit silly (most comparisons are), but Tatis could transition into a Manny Machado-like third baseman. Machado, 6-3, 185, played mostly short in the minors, but the Orioles moved him to third early in his major-league career. Both DRS and UZR have him at like +70-80 runs saved at third in his relatively short career, thanks mostly to that crazy strong arm (plus good range and good instincts).

If Tatis doesn’t move to third, centerfield is also a possibility. He has more speed than you’d expect given his stolen base numbers (more on that in a second), and his long strides could transition well to the large expanses of the outfield grass. Any other spot could work, but third and center are the two positions where Tatis could make the biggest impact defensively while remaining as asset with his bat.

5. Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, Single-A Fort Wayne

One of the things that doesn’t get discussed much with Tatis is his speed. He has just 27 steals in 38 tries over his professional career, and he’s just 12-for-20 this year. Look at him run, though. He got down the line in like 4.1 seconds there, which is plus speed for a right-handed hitter.

Tatis may never be a prolific base stealer, but he still has time to work on better jumps and reads in that department. Even if he’s only a 10 or 15 steal guy at the major-league level, he could still use his straight-line speed to provide value advancing on the bases and/or if a position switch ever moves him to the outfield. The caveat here is that he could lose a tick or two over the next few years as he bulks up.

4. Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, Single-A Fort Wayne

If I had to make one remark about Tatis—from the video I’ve seen of him and that one time I almost watched him play in person—it’s that his playing style is so darned fluid. There’s an ease to the way he goes about things, to the point where you think he’s maybe only giving 80 or 90 percent, and I mean that as complimentary as possible. Some prospects you’ll see labeled as grinders or gamers: “they get every last ounce out of their skill-set,” you might read about one of these guys. That’s nice and all, but it’s just another way to say that their skill-set is limited, and that they must go 100 percent non-stop to make things work.

Tatis looks like he’s able to slow the game down, to play at a pace that’s controlled and comfortable. Even a line-drive single looks smooth and relaxed:

Nathan said something similar in his write-up of Tatis:

The big thing I noticed about him is how relaxed and carefree he seems to be out there. He’s got a bounce to his step, which isn’t something you see a lot from players in the low-levels of the minors. The season is a grind full of long bus trips and few days off, and most players wear that, but not Tatis.

Tatis’ raw power, which might be his most exciting tool, appears to come relatively easy. The power is generated by leverage and torque and strength, not necessarily a wild, max-effort swing. Here’s a home run:

Tatis probably does play close to 100 percent, but it feels like there’s another gear on reserve when he really wants to turn it on.

3. Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, Single-A Fort Wayne

Another thing Nathan and I noticed in the game where Tatis didn’t play is just how into the game he was; he was the first to greet Hudson Potts and Brad Zunica after their home runs, and he was on the top step for much of the night. It’s silly to make too much over a couple of anecdotes from one viewing, but Tatis has consistently graded out well in the make-up department from others who have watched him more.

We tend to scoff at terms like make-up and clubhouse presence once players reach the majors, often because those qualities are used as an excuse for subpar play. At the same time, they’re still valuable characteristics, even if we can’t quite measure them. Further, for prospects who are three or four years from the majors, it’s important to have the right mind-set to deal with the inevitable highs and lows of the minor-league grind.

2. Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, Single-A Fort Wayne

The one thing that’s keeping Tatis from being a consensus top prospect is the hit tool. Scouts see issues with swing length, excessive movement, too much swing-and-miss, and pitch recognition. None of them are crippling bugs, however, as he’s holding his own in full-season ball. But there’s a question as to how the swing will transfer to higher levels, against pitchers who have more of a clue about what they’re doing.

The hit tool is still probably the most important tool for a position player. If you can’t make enough solid contact, you can’t tap into raw power or use speed on the bases. If you can’t hit, you’re probably not a regular at the major-league level unless you have absurd skills elsewhere.

On the plus side, Tatis is improving, at least if we use strikeout percentage as a simple proxy for the development of his hit tool. Here are his strikeout rates at Fort Wayne this season, broken down into 10-game blocks:

April 6-April 17: 45 PAs, 33 percent
April 18-April 27: 44 PAs, 25 percent
April 29-May 8: 40 PAs, 30 percent
May-9-May 20: 47 PAs, 32 percent
May 21-May 31: 41 PAs, 20 percent
June 1- June 11: 46 PAs, 15 percent
June 12-June 24: 37 PAs, 30 percent

So that last blip throws a wrench into a nice trend, but you see the overall progression. Tatis had nearly halved his seasonal strikeout rate in a 20-game stretch from late May through early June, and he’s clearly getting better at making more contact against the best pitching he’s ever seen.

The hope with someone as physically talented as Tatis is that he’ll be able to figure out things faster than the competition. A small sample trend doesn’t necessarily quell greater worries about the swing translating at higher levels, but in that sense Tatis still has plenty of time to prove those concerns wrong.

1. Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, Single-A Fort Wayne

The Dodgers have a pitcher named Julio Urias, who was ranked as one of the best pitching prospects in the majors heading into 2016. Urias had a great season last year, mostly with LA, pitching 77 innings in the bigs with nearly 10 strikeouts per nine. Then he struggled out of the gate this season, walking more than he struck out. He was sent to Triple-A where the struggles subsided some. Then, just the other day, it was announced that he’d undergo season-ending shoulder surgery.

Urias was handled as carefully as possible by the Dodgers, who have the game’s most robust medical department. None of it was a match for the whims of the pitching arm, and now LA’s without a potential ace for at least the rest of the season.

The Padres have some special pitching prospects in the minors, like Anderson Espinoza, Cal Quantrill, Adrian Morejon, and MacKenzie Gore. Even guys like Eric Lauer and Joey Lucchesi are looking good. But (fingers crossed) they’re all a pitch away from an extended break.

Tatis isn’t a pitcher, which means his chance of serious injury shrinks tenfold (fingers crossed). When you combine upside, current performance, risk, and injury profile, Tatis looks like the best prospect in a loaded farm system, narrowly edging out (Luis) Urias and a slew of talented young pitchers.

It’s a great problem to have, of course, five or six guys who could all legitimately be a No. 1 prospect, and it ultimately doesn’t really matter who you put at the top. But if you ask me, I’m going with Tatis every time.

Tatis will likely spend the rest of the season in Fort Wayne, at least according to in-the-know places like MadFriars. Either way, he’ll be in High-A Lake Elsinore through most of next season, and then (hopefully) advance to Double-A and Triple-A over the next couple of years.

If all goes as planned, he’ll be a big part of the Padres next winning run, a game-changing shortstop for an organization that could use one.

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  • Drakos

    This is ridiculous. Tatis at #7? Are you out of your mind?

    • It was a tough call. Could move up fast.

  • Dante Stack