The Cincinnati Reds had an abundance of redundant prospects and a big need to upgrade their starting rotation, so their plan for this off-season was obvious to nearly everyone. They needed to combine a group of good young talents who were blocked from playing regularly and turn them into one high quality starting pitcher. After kicking the tires on nearly every available arm on the market, the Reds finally got their wish today, shipping a quartet of good young talents to San Diego in exchange for 24-year-old Mat Latos.
Let’s start with what the Reds are getting in Latos, who is probably the best fit for their team of any pitcher rumored to be available on the market this winter. During his first two years and change in the Majors, Latos has been one of the better pitchers in baseball. For comparison, here are the starters who have thrown at least 350 innings in the last two years and have posted strikeout rates between 23% and 25%.
That’s some pretty good company Latos has been keeping. There aren’t that many pitchers in the sport who can miss bats with the frequency that Latos has established while also pounding the strike zone with regularity. Guys who can live in the zone and still avoid contact are generally the best pitchers in the game. This is the one skillset you want in a pitcher more than any other.
In terms of pure upside, Latos is likely going to be the best pitcher to change teams this winter. His command of four pitches gives him the chance of being a true front-line starter, and he’s already shown he can dominate hitters from both sides of the plate, so he’s not a guy who can be neutralized through match-up advantages. So, why were the Padres willing to trade him?
Well, as with any young pitcher, Latos carries a decent amont of risk. The flameout rate for developing arms is still pretty high, and Latos has not established himself as a durable innings eater. In fact, Latos began the 2011 season on the disabled list with shoulder bursitis – never a great thing for a pitcher – and missed a few starts in 2010 after straining his side while holding in a sneeze. That’s not exactly the type of injury you expect to recur, but the fact that he’s only averaged about 3,000 pitchers per season the last two years does mean that he hasn’t yet shown that he can hold up under the types of workloads that contenders hope to get from their aces.
With the Reds gunning for a playoff spot in 2012, the restraints are going to have to come off their prized off-season acquisition, and they’ll be forced to ask him to increase his workload, both in terms of games pitched and how many pitches he throws – he’s only crossed the 110 pitch threshold in four of his 72 career starts – in those games. Can he hold up under the increased workload? The Reds have to hope so, but the unknown in this situation provides some risk that allowed Cincinnati to acquire Latos in the first place. Put simply, if he had already proven to be a workhorse capable of these kinds of performances, the Padres probably wouldn’t have traded him. So, the Reds get the upside of a #1 starter by accepting the risks regarding durability and how well Latos will perform outside of Petco Park.
As we talked about with Heath Bell earlier, there are certainly pitchers who you might want to be careful in taking out of San Diego, but honestly, Latos isn’t really one of those guys. For one, Latos hasn’t been given the Aaron Harang treatment, where the Padres rigged the schedule to maximize his starts in Petco. In his career, he’s actually thrown more innings on the road (244.1) than at home (185.1) and his underlying performances have been nearly identical. While this doesn’t mean that he hasn’t benefited from pitching in Petco, he’s not a guy who relies on HR prevention to succeed, and the ability to run a 3-1 strikeout to walk ratio travels well from one ballpark to another. Latos will likely see his HR rate rise a bit with the move to Great American Ballpark, but even with a slight uptick in home runs allowed, he’ll still profile as one of the better starters in the National League.
Latos has the potential to be exactly what the Reds need, and could improve their 2012 roster enough to push them back into position to be real contenders for the National League Central crown next year. Beyond just his short term value, the Reds retain control of his rights through 2015, so this is a move that offers both near term and long term rewards.
The cost was high – I like all four of the guys they gave up – but the reality was that the Reds had too many players for too few spots. They weren’t going to be able to receive value from both Yonder Alonso and Joey Votto or Devin Mesoraco and Yasmani Grandal, so packaging their excess depth with Volquez and Boxberger to get Latos made sense. If Latos does show that he can be a 220 inning ace going forward, they won’t regret this deal even if the players they shipped to San Diego turn out to be stars. The Reds needed to consolidate talent this winter, and they’ve managed to trade quantity for quality at the position they needed most.
Pitching doesn’t come cheap, but credit the Reds for landing a pitcher good enough to make a real difference. This move isn’t without its risks, but Latos has the upside to be worth betting on.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.