By BERNIE WILSON
The Associated Press
PEORIA, Ariz. — There’s no question Fernando Tatis Jr.’s birthright is to play major league baseball.
Having just turned 19, the phenom is in his first big league camp with the San Diego Padres. He’s one of baseball’s top prospects, is the son of a former major leaguer and, until Eric Hosmer signed as a free agent, was probably the one player in the organization that fans of the downtrodden Padres were most eager to see.
If the shortstop plays as well as he did last year in making the jump from low Class A to Double-A, he could get his first call-up, perhaps in September.
Why is he so good, so young?
“This kid was born in the big leagues,” his father said from San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic, which often is referred to as “The Cradle of Shortstops.”
Tatis Jr. was born on Jan. 2, 1999, just before his dad’s third big league season. Fernando Tatis’ 11-year big league career ended just eight years ago.
“I was already there playing for the Cardinals,” the elder Tatis said. “As soon as he opened his eyes, everything he watched was big league baseball.”
Fittingly, Tatis Jr. is the face of the Padres’ rebuild around young players. He was obtained as the team scrapped its failed win-now attempt with high-priced veterans, coming over from the White Sox in the deal that sent James Shields to Chicago in June 2016.
Tatis Jr. said he talks with his father by phone every day.
The senior Tatis will visit his son in spring training soon. Tatis Jr. hit an impressive opposite-field home run in his second Cactus League at-bat and has been making nice plays at shortstop.
“He’s happy for me, man,” said Tatis Jr., the youngest player in any big league camp. “He brought me into this game since I was a kid and now here we are, since a young age and doing stuff and playing the good baseball.”
Tatis recalls being a clubhouse kid.
“I remember my dad was taking me to the field. It was fun. It was great. It was a thing that I love and that was the first love that I brought to this game.”
Padres general manager A.J. Preller was with the Texas Rangers when he first saw Tatis Jr. when he was 14 or 15. Tatis Jr. ended up signing with the White Sox. That Padres scouting department continued to follow Tatis Jr., so when the Padres moved Shields, the young player was a “priority guy,” the GM said.
“When you see guys you like, that are interesting, obviously the son of a big leaguer and everything like that, those guys stick with you,” Preller said.
The GM likes Tatis Jr.’s lineage.
“In general, being familiar with being around the ballpark, being in the clubhouse, having an understanding what offseasons look like, and work ethics, all of those things come into play,” Preller said. “You’re given another experience at an earlier age than guys obviously if your dad didn’t play. We see it as an advantage from a bloodline standpoint. Not all the time, but the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in a lot of these situations.”
Tatis Jr. had a big 2017 season, when he started at Low-A Fort Wayne and tore up the Midwest League before being promoted to Double-A San Antonio in August. Spring training will give the Padres a better look at how close he is to coming up and, if expectations play out, stop the revolving door at shortstop.
The Padres have had a different starting shortstop each of the last four opening days. They traded for Freddy Galvis, who has one year left on his contract, to keep the spot warm for Tatis.
“I think I’m ready,” said Tatis who at 6-foot-3 is four inches taller than his father. “Everything’s a process, but what can I say. I’ve worked hard for it and am still going to keep going until I get a call.”
Preller said Tatis likely will start the season at Double-A. A promotion to the bigs will depend on a lot of factors, a big one being how he does against pitchers in the Texas League.
“The good ones, they come quick,” Preller said. “We’re going to try to challenge guys. We’re not going to put them where they drown.”
Last Friday, in his second Cactus League at-bat, Tatis Jr. hit a monster opposite-field homer on a seemingly effortless two-strike swing.
He struck out three times in his next game and had two more 0-for-3 games, but then had two hits during a seven-run sixth inning Wednesday , as well as a nice defensive play.
Tatis and other young players “are going to push as hard as they can to be here as fast as they can,” manager Andy Green said. “We want them to do that. It’s our job to tap the brakes and take our time with them if we think they need more time and seasoning. They’re clearly dynamic baseball players and we’re excited to have them.”
Cal Quantrill, himself the son of a former big leaguer, played with Tatis Jr. last year.
“He’s the real deal,” Quantrill said. “He’s obviously extremely young but he’s gifted well, well beyond his years. We shall see.”
Tatis’ biggest fan is his father.
“I’m telling you, they’re going to have a shortstop forever because he’s only 19 years old. Oh my God. He might be there 20 years. Who knows?” Fernando Tatis said with a laugh.