The Padres entered this week having already enjoyed the best winter of any team in baseball. But they evidently waited for pitchers and catchers to report to spring training for the coup de grace: Fernando Tatis Jr. agreed to sign a 14-year, $340 million extension with a full no-trade clause, tying the potential face of the sport to an entertaining young team for the foreseeable future—and a bit past that, too.
MLB recently has suffered from too many teams choosing to trade away young stars rather than pay them what they’re worth; in the past two years alone, Boston sent Mookie Betts to the Dodgers, Cleveland dealt Francisco Lindor to the Mets, and Colorado all but gave Nolan Arenado to the Cardinals. The Padres are veering in a different direction, and well before they had to: Tatis celebrated his 22nd birthday in January, and he’s heading into just his third season in the bigs.
But Tatis is special, and the Padres pounced. If a generational superstar— and a swaggering, ebullient fan favorite and MLB the Show cover athlete at that—isn’t worth paying, then running an MLB team isn’t worth it. All sides benefit from this deal in numerous ways.
Because Tatis is so young, the financial implications of his contract aren’t as simple as, say, the extension that Betts signed with the Dodgers last year. Tatis still had one more season at a near-minimum salary before reaching arbitration, followed by three arbitration years, during which he would project to earn about $50 million, ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel estimated last month.
Account for those artificial reductions in salary, and this contract essentially locks in that $50 million expectation and tacks on a 10-year, $290 million contract at the end. That framing demonstrates why the Padres would offer the deal: Particularly after further years of inflation, $29 million annually for a player of Tatis’s talents is an absolute bargain.
Adjusting for park and league context, Tatis has been 54 percent above average at the plate thus far in his career, with a .301/.374/.582 slash line while playing home games in a pitcher’s park. That’s the sixth-best mark in MLB history through age 21 (minimum 600 plate appearances); almost everyone else in the top 15 is, or will be, an inner-circle Hall of Famer.
Best MLB Hitters Through Age 21
|Fernando Tatis Jr.||2019-20||154|
|Ken Griffey Jr.||1989-91||135|
Tatis, in other words, is on a clear Cooperstown trajectory by virtue of his bat alone—and he brings so many other tools to work, too. He is, for instance, one of the fastest players in baseball, with 98th percentile sprint speed last season, and sufficient daring on the basepaths to score from second on grounders and tag up on infield pop-ups.
Tatis also plays shortstop, one of the most celebrated and demanding defensive positions. After improving on an erratic rookie season characterized by spectacular highlights mixed with too many routine errors, he should excel in the field for years to come. Last season, Tatis ranked first among shortstops, and second among all players, in outs above average, with his error total dropping from 18 to three.
Following Tatis’s electric rookie season, there was some hesitation to anoint him so soon, as he made all those errors and his batting line was propped up by an unsustainable .410 batting average on balls in play. He outperformed his expected slash line—as estimated by the distribution of his batted balls—by 50 points in 2019, the highest mark in the majors.
In 2020, however, Tatis had essentially the same overall productivity despite posting a .306 BABIP and underperforming his expected slash line by 18 points. His walk rate rose, his strikeouts dropped, and his power stats exploded like, well, a home run toward the Western Metal Supply Co. building beyond Petco Park’s left field. He led all qualified hitters in average exit velocity, hard-hit rate, and barrel rate, per Statcast measurements, and smashed 17 home runs, one off the NL lead.
Again—as a shortstop! Young Alex Rodriguez is the only semi-reasonable comparison in MLB history, and he set records with his various nine-figure contracts.
None of those statistical plaudits, though, captures the sheer spectacle of a Tatis highlight, or the kinetic enthusiasm with which he plays. Tatis celebrates. He exudes confidence. He blasts baseball’s unwritten rules to smithereens.
He also knows how to appreciate and elevate a capital-m Moment, if last season’s showcase in the Padres’ first playoff series win since 1998 is any indication.
And he will continue to be this most exciting player for the most exciting team in the league. As a reminder, the Padres had the majors’ second-best run differential last season, then spent this winter adding Blake Snell, Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove, and Ha-seong Kim. Only the Yankees and Dodgers are projected to have better records this season, according to both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus.
The Padres’ investment in the full potential of this team began before the 2018 season, with the signing of first baseman Eric Hosmer. But the franchise’s turning point came in early 2019, when third baseman Manny Machado signed a 10-year, $300 million deal and the Padres decided to place Tatis (and rookie pitcher Chris Paddack) on the Opening Day roster, cementing the core of the infield for years to come.
Most prospects of Tatis’s caliber—he ranked no. 2 in baseball that winter, according to Baseball America, behind only Vladimir Guerrero Jr.—don’t start the season on MLB rosters, so their teams can manipulate the players’ service time and gain an extra year of team control. The Padres would have had an easy excuse to leave Tatis in the minors for an extra couple of weeks: He had never even played in Triple-A, and the team wasn’t set to contend in 2019. (They eventually finished in last place.)
But San Diego didn’t honor the insidious practice by which most other teams abide, and benefitted in the long run. It didn’t flagrantly fiddle with Tatis to get one extra year—and now gets him through his entire prime and beyond.
Tatis could very well be leaving money on the table. A decade from now—assuming the various financial bubbles that serve as the foundation of baseball’s landscape don’t burst—stars might command $50 million per year, double Tatis’s average.
Yet this isn’t like the Ronald Acuña or Ozzie Albies deals—early extensions that represent mere fractions of the players’ likely earnings. Tatis is now protected against underperformance or injury. He does have some history with the latter, breaking his thumb on a slide in 2018 and losing half of the 2019 season to a hamstring strain and a stress reaction in his back. And guaranteeing himself $340 million is a way to ensure that his grandkids’ grandkids’ grandkids—Fernando VIII will assuredly be a stud second baseman one day—will be rich.
At every level, this extension is thrilling news. Tatis gets spectacular wealth and security, and a certain home—note that no-trade clause, in light of the Arenado trade two years after his extension with the Rockies—he clearly enjoys. The Padres lock up one of the best players in baseball, both lining up another team cap in Cooperstown for a couple of decades down the road and seizing the franchise’s moment of contention in the present. And the sport’s budding best rivalry also gains a jolt, as the Dodgers and Padres may well compete for the NL West title for the duration of Tatis’s deal. This winter has been something of an arms race between the NL’s two best teams: The Dodgers won the World Series, then the Padres added Snell and Darvish, then the Dodgers signed Trevor Bauer, then the Padres committed to Tatis for the next 14 years.
Most of all, a sport with a rotten recent history of money-motivated trades finds a bright light amid that darkness. Tatis is one player bright enough to light up the whole sport. He’s the most exciting athlete in the game, and now he’s a Padre for good.