That shoulder has been the most talked about joint in Major League Baseball this season.
“We’re trying to avoid any type of surgery right now,” Tatis said in an exclusive interview during the Padres’ recent series against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. “I feel like if there is any way we can get around that surgery we’re going to go that way.”
It’s a risk-reward equation for the Padres, who have 13 years remaining on the controversial 14-year, $340 million contract Tatis signed prior to spring training. Tatis, 22, was paid $1 million in salary, plus a $10 million signing bonus this season. The contract has a $24.3 million average, so the bulk of what he’s to be paid is still ahead.
It was the most expensive contract in the 53-year history of the club and one of the largest sums spent by any team on any one player this past off-season. In January, the New York Mets extended shortstop Francisco Lindor for 10 years at $341 million, and the Los Angeles Dodgers did the same for Mookie Betts for 12 years at $365 million during the 2020 season.
All that money is guaranteed, meaning the Padres gambled on having a healthy Tatis through his best years until the contract expires in 2034. San Diego wouldn’t disclose whether the contract is insured, but the team is considering surgery.
“We’ve agreed to talk in the offseason about the health of his shoulder and what’s the best steps for that,” Padres general manager A.J. Preller said in a phone interview. “Everything’s geared for what’s the best thing for him for the long term. Our doctors have put a lot of time and energy into doing just that.”
Tatis has been diagnosed with a torn labrum and what the Padres have described as shoulder subluxation—when the ball of the upper arm partially comes out of the socket, Lawrence M. Gulotta, an orthopedic surgeon, explained on his website. If he undergoes arthroscopic shoulder surgery, the recovery time is typically four months. But if doctors determine there is more extensive damage and open surgery is necessary, Tatis could be out for as long as eight months, placing his return well into the 2022 season.
He’s been on the injured list three times this season, twice because of the injury and once because of COVID-19, missing 32 games altogether. It can be argued that Tatis’ absence from the lineup has already been costly. Along with injuries to 17 pitchers, the Padres have far underachieved very high expectations this season.
They were odds-on favorites to compete with Los Angeles for the National League West title but went into action Thursday in third place, 14 games behind the Dodgers and the Giants and in a wild scramble for the NL’s second Wild Card berth.
Tatis, who leads the National League with 36 homers and a .638 slugging percentage in 102 games, could still win honors as MVP of the NL. But he said that will pale in comparison to his club’s failures largely because of his lengthy absences from the lineup.
“What can I say? It is what is,” he said. “There’s nothing that can be done about it.”
A spectacular All-Star shortstop, who committed a whopping 20 errors at that position this season, Tatis returned Aug. 15 from his latest stint on the IL, playing with a shoulder brace and as an outfielder to put less stress on his joint. By just the nature of that position, an outfielder is involved in far fewer plays each game. Still, Tatis must be careful not to dive in full motion for a ball or crash into a wall.
Playing the outfield is “pretty easy,” Tatis said. “I’m just trying to be smart in the field.”
The Padres, meanwhile, are just trying to keep Tatis active for the remainder of the season.
He’s incorporated an exercise routine each day to help keep the shoulder in its socket.
“I am confident he’ll be able to keep playing,” Padres manager Jayce Tingler said in a video call. “Crazy things can happen, but in general I think he’s done a great job taking care of his shoulder.”
Tatis admitted that the shoulder injury has been chronic, first popping out of the socket when he was 19 years old. The Padres were well-aware of the issue through annual physicals, but still put all that money on the table.
This year, the injury first reappeared during spring training when he dove for a ground ball, and the shoulder dislodged. It happened again three times during the season, twice putting him on the IL. He injured it swinging the bat and most recently on a rolling slide into third base.
The partial dislocation explains why Tatis has been able to return and still take his hacks. But aside from two breakout games in Arizona, he’s 7-for-51 with two homers, four RBIs and 19 strikeouts in the other 13 games he’s played since his latest return.
In the best-case scenario, during the surgery the torn labrum is reattached to the shoulder socket with the help of special anchors, Dr. Gulotta said. The overstretched capsules and ligaments are tightened.
It’s no wonder Tatis would like to avoid the surgery. But even Tatis knows at some point the shoulder’s going to have to be repaired.
“We’ll see,” he said. “I have a pretty good body that I can bounce back. I was in a lot of pain when it happened, though. My shoulder was completely out.”