Saturday, December 17, 2011

So long, Latos

If you read this blog, you aren't surprised that the Padres today traded Mat Latos to the Reds for pitcher Edinson Volquez and three prospects. Other clubs sensed at the winter meetings that Latos, 24, was available and that the Padres weren't interested in locking up their young ace to a long-term deal. Although the Padres weren't shopping him -- inviting teams to make offers --  the Tattoed One was available, as I wrote here a week ago. Reds general manager Walt Jocketty and Josh Byrnes made a deal that looks like it should help both teams, with Cincinnati looking for prompt returns.

Here, following, are several thoughts about the trade:

* Latos deserves credit for having been a strong performer over the last two years, particularly in 2010. To some extent, he overcame maturity issues that caused him to tumble in the amateur draft and inspired much skepticism among Padres insiders early in his minor league career.

* The job just became tougher for Latos. Any pitcher who leaves the Padres is leaving the best pitching environment in baseball. The breadth and depth of this fact, I believe, still gets underestimated by a surprising number of people in the major leagues, not to mention fans and media. Not only is Petco National Park an extreme pitcher's park, the consistently temperate weather is a nice bonus, and offenses in the National League West are generally subpar. What's more, Padres trainer Todd Hutcheson and his assistants are among the best in the majors at maintaining pitchers' arm strength and flexibility, said well-traveled pitchers Woody Williams and Greg Maddux. Statistical splits don't tell the whole story. Petco boosts and maintains confidence, which often is critical for a young pitcher. The forgiving conditions also reduce wear and tear on arms. As Latos moves to the NL Central, where the ballparks are smaller and the weather far more testing, the training wheels will come off. Latos wouldn't be the first former Padres pitcher to miss Hutcheson. Trevor Hoffman considered Hutcheson vital to his career success.

* The Padres will not admit it, but they still had doubts about Latos's intangibles. To his credit, Latos matured greatly two years ago and grew into one of the elite starting pitchers in the National League. This is a pitcher who, when in good form, has four "plus" pitches. But Latos remained a high maintenance personality who could grate on nerves over the long season, despite the best efforts of a manager, Bud Black, whose No. 1 strength is grooming pitchers. In 2010, teammate Chris Young was an apt mentor to Latos. A former basketball star at Princeton, Young has a strong team ethic. Also, the 6-foot-10 Young  is willing to rebuke teammates if the situation calls for it. Young was with the Mets last year, and some within the Padres organization say Latos would've benefited if Young had still been on the team. When Latos was struggling in the first half of the 2011 season, Hoffman spoke with him. Hoffman encouraged him to be a good teammate. Speaking of his own experiences, Hoffman said he found that pulling for other teammates helped get him through his own tough times. Latos responded with a strong second half.

* Many times last year, I thought Latos pitched to his ERA more than he did to trying to win a game. There is a distinction.

* First baseman Yonder Alonso likely has the most upside of the prospects coming to the Padres. He also has played left field, but is limited there. Left fields in the NL West are among the most difficult to defend. The best spot for Alonso, to be sure, is first base. This trade signals that this Padres front office isn't sold on Anthony Rizzo, who showed no improvement late last season after his second promotion from Triple-A.

* Because they are deep in pitching prospects and Petco National Park is so forgiving, the Padres should still be optimistic about their pitching. But none of their advanced prospects has as much "pure stuff" as Latos, and aside from Casey Kelly, who projects as a No. 3 starter, none can match his athleticism. The Padres have a potential frontline starter in Joe Ross, the second of their first-round draft picks last year. But he is three or four years away from reaching the major leagues. The failure to sign Karsten Whitson seems more significant today.

* Latos soon could command huge salaries if he produces like he did in 2010-11.

* I doubt that the shoulder flareup that Latos reported late last spring training had any bearing on this trade. The Padres shut down Latos largely to build his confidence after a bumpy spring training. Jed Hoyer told me that the club didn't give Latos an MRI exam.

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