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Fernando Tatis Jr. return: Where will OF bat in the Padres’ lineup?

As Padres star Fernando Tatis Jr. returns from his suspension, we go over where he fits into San Diego’s lineup.

Fernando Tatis Jr. of the San Diego Padres hits a home run during a spring training game against the Los Angeles Angels on March 24, 2023 at the Tempe Diablo Stadium in Tempe, Arizona. Photo by Matt Thomas/San Diego Padres/Getty Images

More than 18 months since he last stepped foot on a Major League field — between an injury that sidelined him for the beginning of 2022 and the 80-game suspension he’s been serving after testingn positive for a banned substance — Fernando Tatis Jr. is finally set to return to the San Diego Padres on Thursday against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

It’s among the biggest storylines of this MLB season, one of the very brightest talents in baseball — a man who was last seen leading the NL in homers in just 130 games played — making his return amid plenty of doubts and criticism. As if we needed any more intrigue, Padres manager Bob Melvin gave it to us when addressing his plans for Tatis Jr. once he came back.

Where will Fernando Tatis Jr. bat in the Padres lineup?

According to Melvin, it seems very likely that the shortstop-turned-right fielder will be San Diego’s regular leadoff man.

There were plenty of signs this was coming during the spring, when Tatis Jr. was given plenty of chances to lead off, as well as in his Minor League tune-up the past couple of weeks. Still, it’s worth monitoring, as Tatis Jr. had previously bounced between first, second and fourth in the order and the Padres have added plenty of offensive talent (Juan Soto, Xander Bogaerts) since he was last playing for San Diego.

You can certainly understand why Melvin would want Tatis Jr. hitting first: His numbers from the leadoff spot are bananas even by his lofty standards, with a .317/.382/.627 slash line, 38 homers and 26 steals over less than a full season’s worth of plate appearances. If you want Tatis Jr. to have as many chances at the plate as possible, this is the way to do it, and he has no problems being ready to attack at the start of a game. (It would also bump Trent Grisham back down in the order, as the outfielder has occasionally led off against righties but is a much better fit hitting sixth or seventh.)

As for what it means for the rest of San Diego’s lineup? The team has been running out a top four of Bogaerts, Soto, Manny Machado, either Nelson Cruz (against lefties) or Matt Carpenter (against righties) at DH and Jake Cronenworth at first base. You’d imagine that everyone would slide one spot down in the order, with Soto likely hitting second against righties and Bogaerts filling that spot with a righty on the mound.

The biggest impact of Tatis Jr.’s return, though, will come through filling probably the biggest hole on San Diego’s roster, as right field has been an absolute sinkhole for the Pads this year. It’s understandable that the team didn’t want to devote major resources to filling a spot that they knew Tatis would step into after a few weeks, but it’s safe to say that they still hoped for a little more from the likes of Rougned Odor and Jose Azocar. Swapping out that sub-replacement production for a potential MVP will do wonders for a San Diego team that’s gotten off to a sluggish start this year.