The ball flew into the warm January night in San Pedro de Macoris, and seconds later, so did Fernando Tatis Jr.’s bat. The game’s No. 2 prospect, according to Baseball America and MLB.com, Tatis had just made a winner of his Dominican Winter League team with a walk-off homer in a playoff game. As he strutted out of the batters’ box and his teammates dashed onto the field, the Padres’ shortstop of the future put both hands on the knob of his bat and chucked it sky-high before skipping around the bases, screaming with joy while the crowd in his hometown stadium went wild.
San Diego hopes that moment was just a preview of what’s to come. The son of the longtime MLB utility man, Tatis stands at 6’ 3,” 185 pounds, cutting a figure more similar to Manny Machado—who had nearly those same measurements as a rookie—than his contact-hitting dad. At the tender age of 19, he torched Double A pitching last year, earning an invite to the 2018 Futures Game. “Tatis has one of the highest offensive ceilings in the minors,” notes his write-up in MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 prospects list. He is—quite literally—not your father’s Fernando Tatis.
But for all his bravado, and despite growing up around the game, Tatis is still susceptible to goosebumps. That’s what happened during All-Star week in Washington D.C. last July, when over a Sunday night dinner at Mastro’s Steakhouse, he got to meet one of his idols: Machado. The two players, who share Dan Lozano as an agent, spent three hours talking baseball, as Tatis picked Machado’s brain for advice. Though nervous at first, he quickly established a rapport with the four-time All-Star, and by night’s end, the two swapped numbers to stay in touch.
They won’t need to text each other to talk now, though. In early February, Machado shocked baseball by joining the Padres on a 10-year, $300 million deal. His next move was just as surprising: He agreed to move off shortstop and over to third base in deference to Tatis. “He’s a beast,” Machado said of his new teammate. “He reminds me of myself when I was 19 years old and got called up. He can do it all.”
Sitting over dinner in Arizona during spring training—this time with a reporter, not a perennial All-Star—Tatis, who turned 20 in January, says the gesture blew him away. “I’m not gonna lie, that makes me feel special,” he says.
With Machado, 26, joining him on the left side of the infield, the future in San Diego looks as sunny as the weather: the core is in place for a team equal parts exciting and talented. It helps, too, that the Padres have the game’s most loaded farm system: Nine of their prospects placed on Baseball America’s Top 100 list going into 2019, the most of any team. Machado is ready for that youth movement to begin now, lobbying hard for Tatis—who has yet to play above Double A—to make the Opening Day roster. “If he’s in there, we’re going to be a dangerous team,” Machado told reporters after his first spring game. (In a bold, unexpected move from Padres GM A.J. Preller, Tatis was reportedly named to the MLB roster on Tuesday night. Most expected the 20-year-old to become the latest victim of the service-time manipulation tactics that affected Kris Bryant, Ronald Acuña Jr and, purportedly, Vladimir Guerrero Jr.)
When Tatis makes his imminent debut, he'll represent the coming wave of young MLB stars, a group that has little use for baseball’s archaic unwritten rules: no outsized emotions, no big celebrations, no showing up your opponent.
“I like when people hit homers and do their bat flips,” Tatis says. “I would love to see it more. It brings more passion to the game, more flair.”
His father concurs. “I think it’s good,” Fernando Sr. says, adding that, when he saw his son send his bat skyward in the Dominican, he didn’t care one bit. Though Tatis Sr. never once flipped a bat during his playing career, as that’s not how he was taught to play the game, he’s happy to see his son and the rest of his generation show so much passion in a sport that traditionally has stifled it.
“They’re going to bring more to this game,” Tatis Sr. says. “The game cannot stay one way. You’ve got to make the game better. You’ve got to make the fans watch more games. These young guys bring the energy and what they have in their hearts. So why not give them a chance?”
There is some irony in the young Tatis’s pairing with Machado, a magnet for controversy who traditionalists love to grouse about. While playing for the Dodgers in last year’s World Series, Machado memorably flipped his bat after launching a pitch and sauntered out of the box … only to end up on first base when the ball failed to leave the yard.
But Tatis Sr., who made a 13-year career of playing the game “the right way,” says the argument might as well be over. “Nobody’s going to stop these young kids,” he says. He’s ready for the future, and right now, the future looks like the Padres.
“In this game, it’s so hard, and you fail so much, when you do good, you should celebrate no matter what,” Tatis Jr. says. “The game is going to change. It’s going to keep evolving.” Then he adds, with a smile, “Bat flips are going to be legal.”