Fernando Tatis Jr. hasn't been a star the Padres can trust. Luckily, they have Juan Soto

WASHINGTON — Not quite 24 hours after the world learned that Fernando Tatis Jr. had received an 80-game PED suspension, a couple of San Diego Padres fans in backward baseball caps watched the team take batting practice on a perfect summer Saturday in Washington, D.C. One wore a jersey that had originally said “Tatis Jr.” over the No. 23 on the back, except now masking tape covered the name and “Soto” was written over top. It almost works, 22, 23 — close enough.

The ironic thing is, a weekend that was supposed to be about Juan Soto had turned into a referendum on the absence of Tatis and an open question about whether the feats of the former would suffice as cover-up for the sins of the latter. Inevitably, when you put masking tape on a jersey, it’s the desire to replace one thing with another that really stands out.

Padres have learned not to depend on Tatis

It’s hard to write about Tatis’ suspension incisively, yet. The only thing that really matters now is whether he is telling the truth and, separately, whether the Padres believe him. Tatis claimed that the Clostebol in his system was an unintentional result — that left him “devastated” — of taking medication to treat ringworm. I don’t know if that’s true. Or if the similarity in name to Clobetasol, a common corticosteroid cream that could (but shouldn’t) be used to relieve ringworm, is evidence of a costly goof, a desperate ploy, or merely a coincidence.

But even that matters only insofar as it would flesh out the fascinating story of how the flashy star positioned as the future of baseball ended up labeled unreliable at best and a cheater at worst before he turned 24. In his statement, Tatis referenced initially appealing the punishment, but said he had since “realized that my mistake was the cause of this result” and will begin serving his suspension immediately. This is happening, everything else is just speculation.

On the virtue of two partial seasons of tantalizing talent hindered by injury, the Padres made Tatis the centerpiece of what would become a full-throttle push for the franchise’s first title. In February 2021, they signed him to a 14-year, $340 million extension before he was even arbitration eligible. And then he went out and delivered a season that seemed to capture both the high risk and high reward of having done so: leading the National League in home runs, despite separating his shoulder numerous times throughout the season. A late-season collapse left cracks in Slam Diego’s newly fashioned reputation as the cool kids taking over Southern California and left the Padres still waiting for a chance in the postseason. They would have to put it all together — headlined, of course, by Tatis — in 2022.

Except now he’ll miss the entire season and then some. A wrist injury seemingly sustained in a motorcycle accident — accidents? in the offseason and left to linger in the absence of contact with the team mandated by the lockout has kept Tatis off the field until now. The suspension means San Diego will play the rest of the way without him. He’ll be ineligible for the postseason and he’ll miss the start of next season.

San Diego Padres injured shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. will miss the entire 2022 season and then some due to injuries and a drug suspension. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
San Diego Padres injured shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. will miss the entire 2022 season and then some due to injuries and a drug suspension. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Tatis, who was a few games into a rehab stint with the Double-A team in San Antonio, returned to San Diego. Across the country, the Padres front office and players learned of the suspension just hours before it was made public.

With notably obvious frustration, Padres general manager A.J. Preller told reporters during the game on Friday that the maturity concerns that arose after the offseason were apparently “more of a pattern and something we’ve got to dig a little bit more into.” He alluded to reexamining the contract in light of the motorcycle incident, and questioned the trust between the organization and Tatis.

His teammates, left to answer questions about his absence in his absence, noted that it was nothing new. The Padres have little hope of catching the Los Angeles Dodgers, but that only makes their fight for a wild-card spot all the more admirable and impressive — and all done without Tatis. They’ve gotten this far without him, seemed to be the general sentiment, they’ll go the rest of the way buoyed by the added energy and ability of a charismatic young star. Just not Tatis.

“It’s a little different cause he wasn’t here,” first-year manager Bob Melvin said Saturday, shortly after he reached out to Tatis, whom he has yet to write into a lineup. “And it’s way different because we picked up three guys here that have been, if you’ve watched, very impactful within our lineup.”

In the Soto deal, the Padres also got Josh Bell, a switch-hitting All-Star snub. Before that, they’d added arguably the best closer over the past five years, Josh Hader. Later, they’d pick up Brandon Drury.

But it’s Soto who earned San Diego the unanimous top spot in trade deadline rankings and a place in the books as the beneficiaries of a historic blockbuster. The hope and the headline was obvious: Soto joining Tatis and Manny Machado to create a dynamic young core with seemingly limitless potential. And yet it was the home-grown (after a minor league trade that looks like a coup in retrospect) Tatis who was still a question mark down the stretch when the deadline came and went. At least now they have an answer.

“I think there’s some finality in what we know we have here,” Melvin said.

Soto already impressing teammates

Machado didn’t realize he was drawing a stark comparison as he praised Soto’s maturity Sunday morning.

The third baseman — and lone member of that ideal Padres trio who will actually play for the team all season — is only 30 years old and already on the other side of a instant adulation before he was of legal drinking age, followed by fans souring on him, a midseason trade from the East Coast to California, and a massive contract that made him a de facto veteran in a clubhouse built through splashy acquisitions.

He said Soto has seemed normal — well, maybe not normal, but everything they expected — since arriving amid unprecedented fanfare.

“I wasn't like that when I got traded,” Machado said. “Just the energy and intelligence he brings in every single day, it's pretty cool to watch honestly.”

He sees the parallels in their early careers, beyond the proximity to the beltway.

“It’s just how we grew up,” Machado said. By that he means around strong veterans. For him in Baltimore it was Adam Jones, Nick Markakis and J.J. Hardy. Soto had Ryan Zimmerman, Max Scherzer and Howie Kendrick in D.C.

“He's very observant on a lot of things,” Machado said. “So he probably just sat in his locker, observed how they went about their business, and he did the same thing. That's how we learn, ultimately. That's what the game is missing, is all these veterans around the clubhouse to teach these younger players how to go about their business.”

Machado was 26 when Tatis debuted. Even now, Machado recalls how the rookie had called him one of his favorite players.

“I kinda just took him under my wing and just tried to be there for him in whatever situation he could possibly have,” Machado said. “He’s like a little brother.”

San Diego Padres' Juan Soto has quickly earned the admiration of his new teammates after being traded from Washington earlier this month. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
San Diego Padres' Juan Soto has quickly earned the admiration of his new teammates after being traded from Washington earlier this month. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

A dugout spat between Machado and Tatis caught on camera late last season revealed the emotion behind that relationship, and perhaps the limits of peer mentorship. Then first-time manager Jayce Tingler was replaced in the offseason with the venerable Melvin. A wise move, perhaps made a little too late — Tatis has had scant opportunity to benefit from his influence.

Machado hasn’t called Tatis yet, but he will.

“Just talk to him, just have a heart-to-heart conversation with him. Just see what he was thinking and see what he was…” Machado said without finishing that sentence. “Everyone has their opinion. Everyone has a reason why they do things.”

And, at some point, he would like Tatis to explain himself to the team at large. Letting public furor fuel you, give you a chip on your shoulder, is fine. But what matters is what your teammates think of you. That won’t be settled until Tatis addresses the team.

“As a person who’s one of the franchise players with this organization,” Machado said. “I think that’s the right thing to do.”

As one star shines, another fades

The Nationals are a bad team playing out a lost season. These days, their stadium hosts almost as many fans of the visiting team as those sporting red. Over the weekend, both groups cheered loudly for Soto, his first return to D.C. since the deadline, the latest series in a surge that has his OPS over 1.000 since he joined San Diego.

The juxtaposition between Tatis and Soto, who is just 69 days his senior, is circumstantial but significant. On the field, where the Padres will find out if they can accomplish with Soto what they failed to do while fielding Tatis. And in the hearts of a fanbase that made Tatis the second-most popular jersey sale last season and now block out his name in favor of Soto, whose addition led to such a surge in season-ticket requests for next summer that the team was forced to cap them for the first time.

This is the nature of sports: exceptional people rendered replaceable by their proximity to other elite individuals. When athletes do intentionally engage in illicit efforts to gain an edge, this serves as an explanation of sorts — even the best are beset by constant competition from their peers. The only glory to be found is in staying ahead. But that’s also why trust is so central to the experience of fandom. To believe your guy is the greatest of all, you have to believe him.