When the Cincinnati Reds traded for Mat Latos nine days after his 24th birthday in December of 2011, he was still a rising star. Latos never appeared on a Baseball America Top 100 list, but he wasted little time establishing himself as a front-line starter in San Diego. From 2010-11, he led the Padres staff by compiling 379 innings of 3.21 ERA ball with 8.9 K/9 and 2.7 BB/9. It was pretty obvious to Walt Jocketty that the kid was something special, but Cincinnati wound up paying a hefty price for four years of Latos by dealing top prospects Yonder Alonso (24 at the time), Yasmani Grandal (22) and Brad Boxberger (23) as well as starter Edinson Volquez to the Padres. Two years later, Latos has compiled a sterling 24-7 record as a Red. While his 3.45 ERA isn’t exactly top tier, his improvement is more than notable.
With a plus slider, a plus 2-seam fastball, and a breaking ball that seems to get better every time he takes the mound, he’s been able to keep hitters off balance in major game situations, also sporting a 4-seam fastball, a cut fastball, and a change-up. Generally known as a fly ball pitcher, many questioned how this would affect him in the tight quarters of Great American Ball Park, especially coming from pitcher friendly Petco Park in San Diego. While he’s gotten solid run support this season(5.2runs/9 IP) the Reds bullpen has blown 5 potential wins for him, leaving some to wonder what could be. Many do not realize that Latos finished 8th in NL Cy Young voting his first full season as a Padre, and if he continues to pitch the way he is, he should be in contention again this year.
Latos did not miss a start in 2012, nor did anyone from the rest of the Reds starting rotation, and he piled up 209 1/3 innings in 31 starts. Unfortunately, Latos was forced into action in Game 1 of the NLDS following an injury to Johnny Cueto and delivered four brilliant innings of relief, but he was unable to replicate that magic in his second appearance. He is unquestionably the Reds ace at this point in the 2013 season, with Cueto frequenting the disabled list for a good portion of the year.
I believe that if Walt Jocketty had a chance to do this trade again, he would do it in a heartbeat. Latos is a solid clubhouse personality, and the young core of this team is now locked up for several more seasons. Prospects like first baseman Grandal (who is now being mentioned in the BioGenesis steroid scandal) and catcher Alonso are tough to part with, but the Reds already had Joey Votto at first base and felt confident that Devin Mesoraco could become their everyday catcher.
The Reds surely need him to continue the pace, with Cueto’s health in doubt for the remainder of the season. When Cueto is healthy, this may be the best pitching staff the Reds have ever seen. Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey, and Mike Leake could be number 2 starters on half the teams in baseball, and with the emergence of Tony Cingrani, it’s tough to find a better starting pitching staff in the majors. There is no such thing as too much good starting pitching, but health will be the key for this 2013 Reds team if they want to play baseball in October.
As for Latos’ future, I believe he will be a successful Red for a long time to come. He signed a two-year, $11.5 million contract in the offseason that bought out his first two years of arbitration. Assuming another successful two seasons, he’ll likely earn well over $10 million in his final year of arbitration eligibility, although the Reds could pursue a long-term contract extension that would delay his free agency.