Padres’ suspended star making long-awaited return

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A funny thing happened to the San Diego Padres after they lost superstar Fernando Tatis Jr. for the entire 2022 season.

Coming off a third-place National League MVP finish, Tatis was expected to power the Padres to the postseason and further cement his status as a franchise icon. Instead, a broken wrist suffered in a motorcycle accident sidelined him into August, just long enough for an 80-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball’s performance-enhancing drug policy to hit, striking 2022 from his record altogether.

And the Padres flourished.

They won 89 games, most since 2010, and defeated the 101-win New York Mets and 111-win Los Angeles Dodgers to reach the NL Championship Series, their first playoff conquests since 1998. With slugger Juan Soto now in tow and the steady Ha-Seong Kim holding down shortstop, perhaps Tatis was superfluous to their core.

Yet 20 games into their season, it’s clear San Diego will most definitely need Tatis when his suspension concludes and he suits up against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Thursday in Phoenix.

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A look at how Tatis and the Padres got here, and what’s next:

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Is this the same team Tatis left?

Tatis last played in a major league game on Oct. 3, 2021, concluding the Padres’ 79-83 season while capping the San Francisco Giants’ 107-win campaign.

Jayce Tingler managed that game for the Padres; he was subsequently fired and replaced by Bob Melvin.

Tatis, in the first year of his 14-year, $340 million contract, started at shortstop and expected to hold that position down for at least a decade; San Diego has since signed Xander Bogaerts to a $300 million deal and booted Tatis to the outfield.

And the likes of Wil Myers, Tommy Pham and Jake Marisnick held down corner outfield spots that season; they’ve been effectively replaced by Silver Slugger Soto (acquired in an August 2022 trade) and Bogaerts, whose December signing ended Tatis’ occasionally erratic reign at shortstop.

On a more intangible level, it is decidedly Manny Machado’s ballclub.

While Tatis, still just 24, inspired many a highlight reel since his debut as a 20-year-old, it is Machado who has stayed healthy (he’s played in 95% of San Diego’s games since joining them in 2019) and productive (.847 OPS, 133 adjusted OPS). And now he’s guaranteed even more money: San Diego signed him to an 11-year, $350 million deal in February to ensure Machado did not opt out of his previous $300 million pact after this season.

What happened to Tatis?

He suffered what was initially described as “minor injuries” in a Dec. 8, 2021 motorcycle accident in the Dominican Republic, just a week after MLB locked out the players in a labor dispute that would last 99 days.

After a new collective bargaining agreement was reached in March and players reported for an abbreviated spring training, it was revealed Tatis suffered a broken left wrist in the accident – or at least one of perhaps multiple offseason incidents, as Tatis cagily answered. Regardless, surgery was required and the injury was slow to heal.

He was slated to begin a rehab assignment sometime in August, but on Aug. 12, MLB announced that Tatis tested positive for clostebol, a testosterone derivative. Tatis claimed he unknowingly ingested the banned substance in an effort to treat ringworm.

Regardless, his season was over, so Tatis went for the mega-fix, undergoing long-delayed left shoulder surgery in September and then a follow-up procedure in October on his left wrist.

He showed up to spring training healthy and ready to play – yet still needing to serve 20 games of his suspension.

What’s Tatis been up to?

Most recently, pulverizing minor-league pitching.

Tatis crushed seven homers in eight games with San Diego’s Class AA El Paso (Texas) affiliate, notching 17 hits in 33 at-bats before the Padres said, “You’re good” and summoned him back to San Diego.

He’s been working out pregame at Petco Park, but forced to leave before stadium gates open, per terms of his suspension. But he also got in a full spring training, and earned strong reviews for his work in right field.

How have the Padres fared without him?

Not great! They’re just 9-11 and while winning three of four at Atlanta was impressive, they’ve split or lost all their other series. Machado (.590 OPS) and Soto (.194 average, .790 OPS) are underperforming and starters Michael Wacha (6.06) and Blake Snell (6.00) have struggled.

It hasn’t helped that San Diego was forced to piecemeal a right field solution while Tatis finished his suspension. A crew largely comprised of Jose Azocar, Rougned Odor, David Dahl and Brandon Dixon have combined for a .441 OPS, 29th among 30 teams in right field productivity.

Tatis can only help that. And Machado’s defiant words may ring true come summertime.

“I’d rather have this happen now than down the road,” Machado said, per, after a home loss to Atlanta on Monday. “Don’t jump on the bandwagon later on when we start (expletive) raking and we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing.’

This post appeared first on USA TODAY