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Is There a Shortstop Battle Looming in San Diego?

Ha-Seong Kim could remain at short, even after Tatis returns

We’re still roughly a month away from the return of San Diego Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. That’s the bad news (“bad” in this context referring purely to the fact that we still have to wait another month-or-so to see him as a baseball community). The good news is that some strong pitching and a torrid start from Manny Machado have the Padres squarely in the playoff hunt, sitting just barely behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West. With that early success, there’s already a buzz generated over the return of one of baseball’s youngest stars.

Even with a solid beginning to the year, there’s no overstating how valuable the return of Tatis Jr. could be to San Diego. Especially given that outside of Machado and Eric Hosmer, the offense has been rather lackluster. Tatis’ projected return from a broken wrist currently sits at the end of June. That sets him up to garner some plate appearances just before the All Star break. Which could, in turn, serve as a springboard toward returning to his elite performance level in the second half.

That not only adds a crucial piece to the San Diego lineup, but one capable of adding a potent offensive presence to a team that has otherwise lacked it. Of course, that’s a best case scenario. There’s no telling how long it might take Tatis Jr. to ramp back up to last year’s form, if he even does in 2022. Of course, given that he posted a 7.1 fWAR and .328 ISO in 2021, while at the same time dealing with a myriad of injuries, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic.

At the same time, the return of Fernando Tatis Jr. in San Diego isn’t a purely black-and-white proposition. Production after that long of a layoff is already going to operate under heavy shades of gray. Even beyond that, though, there’s the current shortstop to consider: Ha-Seong Kim.

Kim has been filling in on a full-time basis in Tatis’ absence. It’s more than we saw of Kim in his rookie campaign, as he recorded 298 plate appearances across 117 games in 2021. He split time heavily between short, second, and third. His role was primarily that of a defensive stopper, as well as a fill-in when Tatis was absent with his shoulder injury. This year, we’ve seen Kim primarily at shortstop, but he’s shifted over to third occasionally to spell Machado. C.J. Abrams manned short in those instances, but has since been optioned back to Triple-A.

That leaves Kim as the only legitimate shortstop on the roster until Tatis Jr. returns. He’s going to get as much run as possible, especially given the opportunity to showcase his skillset in his sophomore campaign in the States. The results haven’t been overwhelming. He’s slashed .222/.313/.402/.715. He’s striking out about 20 percent of the time. But there are a number of positives there.

For one, Kim has been above average by way of wRC+ (109). His strikeout rate is cut a bit from last year (23.8 percent). He’s walking more than he did in 2021 (10.4 percent). And he’s demonstrating a bit more power, with a .179 ISO that is almost 30 points higher than 2021. Perhaps more importantly, Kim is doing a lot of work with runners on. Kim’s hitting .271 with runners on base and .381 with runners in scoring position. He leads the team in the latter. He’s doing all of that while playing solid defense (12.7 UZR/150, 1 Defensive Runs Saved, and 1 Outs Above Average).

Overall, Kim is playing strong defense while providing decent enough offense, especially in key moments. For a Padres team sorely in need of offensive help, Kim has been a contributor. Especially in the face of the struggles that expected stalwarts like Wil Myers, Jake Cronenworth, and Trent Grisham have experienced.

Which certainly leads one to ponder whether or not we’ll continue to see Kim at short regularly upon Tatis’ return. Out of the gate, it seems obvious. As the Padres work Tatis back into the fold, he’ll likely see a lot of time as the designated hitter. But as we get well into July and August, what does that look like?

If you remember, the Padres trotted Tatis Jr. to the outfield grass for a spell in 2021. He logged over 200 innings there, including 56 in center field and about 150 in right. The aim there was more to preserve his health above all. Further, Tatis has been something of a mixed bag at short. While he’s made some stellar plays in the last three seasons, metrics don’t love him (-9 DRS, -12.4 UZR). Could keeping Kim in place at shortstop not only allow a key RISP bat to remain in the lineup, but maintain San Diego’s strong defense? Probably.

There’s also an offensive component to consider here. Of the Padres’ current outfielders, Jurickson Profar is the only above average bat, according to wRC+. He’s at 117, largely thanks to his high walk rate and an influx of power. Outside of that, offense hasn’t really come from anywhere beyond the dirt. Keeping Kim at short provides at modestly above average bat in the bottom half of the order, while getting Tatis’ pop into an outfield mix that could really use it.

Whether the team does so under the guise of health or in an effort to inject a little bit of life into the outfield bats doesn’t ultimately matter. And there’s no guarantee they explore this too far, either. Kim could very well be relegated to something of a super-utility role, while Tatis resumes his post at short. Short-term DH seems likely. But beyond that? We’ll have to wait in see.

But, at the very least, Ha-Seong Kim has worked himself into a conversation about the position for the remainder of 2022.

Photos by Mark Goldman & John Cordes/Icon Sportswire, Wikimedia Commons | Adapted by Drew Wheeler (@drewisokay on Twitter)

Randy Holt

Randy Holt is a staff writer for Pitcher List & a depth charts analyst for Baseball Prospectus. He's a self-identified Cubs fan who has become more agnostic, instead obsessing about quality defensive baseball wherever he can find it. Randy has a sport management degree from the University of Florida, as well as degrees from Embry-Riddle & Arizona State. A former high school English teacher, Randy now works in the corporate world and resides in Arizona.

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