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Three damn good years of Mat Latos and the Reds

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A look back at the big righthander's time spent in the Queen City.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In the days of old when knights were bold and unaccountable pseudonyms ruled this castle, some ill-informed jackhole wondered what the 2012 Cincinnati Reds would look like if they managed to acquire a young San Diego Padres pitcher by the name of Mat Latos.

Their offense, however, is and has been pitiful.  Since they picked up Anthony Rizzo in the Adrian Gonzalez trade, they seem to be set with their 1B of the future.  While Nick Hundley has shown glimpses of promise, I'm sure they'd still covet Devin Mesoraco. Mat Latos would look pretty damn nice as a piece of the Reds 2012-2015 rotation, don't ya think?

Mat Latos was traded from the Reds to the Miami Marlins yesterday, but thanks to Walt Jocketty swinging for the fences to get him in December of 2011, Latos had the chance to look pretty damn nice as a piece of the Reds 2012-2014 rotation.

Latos came to the Reds just a week after his 24th birthday, but by then he'd already established himself as the kind of power pitching, strike throwing arm that the Reds had been desperate to find for years.  From the late season call-up in his 2009 rookie season through the end of 2011- his last in San Diego - Latos compiled a 3.37 ERA in over 429 IP, striking out 8.7 batters per 9 innings while maintaining a superb WHIP of just 1.15.   His 2010 season really put him on the map, however, as the then 22 year old went 14-10 with a 2.92 ERA in 184.1 IP, struck out over a batter an inning, held his WHIP to a career low 1.08, and finished 8th in the NL Cy Young Award voting on the heels of his 126 ERA+.  But the Padres then (much as they do now) struggled to put up any offense at all, and after a 2011 season where they scored just 593 runs and saw GM Jed Hoyer depart for Chicago, the club opted to unload their emerging star to Cincinnati for a pair of highly ranked hitting prospects, a former All Star starter, and a reliever with an arm live enough to fit in any bullpen.

It was a haul, the type of trade that could cripple a team if it failed, and one that quite literally could have had Walt Jocketty on the outs if the 2012 Reds stumbled like their 2011 edition did.  Both Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal were former 1st round picks and prospects universally ranked among the Top 50 in the game, and while trading them not only signaled that the Reds were willing to liquidate the farm to get Latos, it also signaled that they were choosing to go with Joey Votto and Devin Mesoraco at 1B and C, respectively.  The former is something every GM loses sleep over, but failing in the latter is what  generations will remember as baseball lore after the fact (such as San Diego choosing Garry Templeton over Ozzie Smith, or if - god forbid - the Reds had opted for Kurt Stillwell over Barry Larkin back in 1987).  Pulling the trigger on this deal had massive implications for Jocketty and a Reds team that still had 2010's success planted firmly in their minds.  That former All Star and perennial Rookie of the Year candidate Edinson Volquez and former supplemental 1st round pick Brad Boxberger were also included served to cement that the the Reds were as invested in Latos as in any player they'd had in years.

No pressure, right?  Sure.  No pressure.

The Reds' new arm was supposed to fit in nicely in a rotation that included emerging star Johnny Cueto, the ever talented Homer Bailey, veteran frisbee-flipper Bronson Arroyo, and the steady Mike Leake, but when you stand 6'6" and 240 lbs, are covered in tattoos, and are the new kid in town who had the farm traded for him, expectations of him were through the roof.  There were numerous doubters, skeptics who wondered openly if the "maturity" issues that caused him to fall from the 1st round to the 11th round of the 2006 draft were still there, analysts who questioned whether his fly-ball tendencies would crush him in his transition from San Diego's cavernous stadium to Cincinnati's bandbox.  There were endless number of fans who spent more time lamenting how much was traded away rather than focusing on the talented hurler who came in return.  The 2011 Reds, after all, had stumbled to an under .500 season in the wake of their division championship 2010, and Latos was the one big piece the team was leaning on to help turn the tides.

Latos - a notorious slow starter - sputtered out of the gate in his inaugural season in Cincinnati, allowing 14 runs in the first 15.1 innings he pitched, good for an 8.22 ERA and an 0-2 record.  Conversations like the one in the first few paragraphs of this were not uncommon, especially after a brutal 11-1 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals that left the team at just 4-8 and already 5 games back in a competitive NL Central.

But then something clicked, the same thing that seemed to click for Mat as the calendar turned to May in each of his other years in the big leagues, and both he and the Reds took off on the greatest ride we'd seen them make in over 20 years.  From his first start in May to the end of the 2012 regular season, Latos pitched as well as at any point in his young career, posting a 3.09 ERA, .650 OPS against, and a K/BB better than 3 to 1 while averaging nearly 6.2 innings per start.  In those 28 starts, he went 13-2 while the Reds themselves went 21-7, both indicative of the team's 93-57 finish and second NL Central division crown in three seasons.  He finished 14-4 on the season, eclipsed 200 innings for the first time in his career (209.1), tied for the league lead with 33 starts made, and posted what still stands as a career high in bWAR at 4.3, showing that he was every bit the kind of pitcher the Reds had hope for when they traded for him.

On the backs of Latos' strong finish, Cueto's emergence as a Cy Young contender, Joey Votto's return from injury, and a balanced lineup featuring a resurgent Ryan Ludwick and Todd Frazier's breakout, the Reds took the 2nd best record in all of baseball into the NLDS against the San Francisco Giants, and I worry that - to many - one belt-high fastball will be what Latos is most associated with during his tenure with the Reds.  And that kills me a bit.

★★★

Cueto's core seized up six pitches into Game 1 of the 2012 NLDS, and decades of collective angst bubbled up from guts of Reds fans everywhere.  The best season the franchise had been through in a generation was on edge when Sam LeCure handed the ball to Latos after having battled through the end of the 2nd inning, and Latos - on just 3 days rest - proceeded to grind his way through 4 innings of 1 run ball that helped the Reds hold on to their first postseason win in 17 years.  I was in San Francisco that day, and when Latos walked off the mound with the Reds in the lead, the angst and fear and frustration and woe that had been already been tossed into my emotional blender was thoroughly overwhelmed diluted by the relief and confidence Latos had added.  The Reds had lost an ace, but despite the early panic that ensued, all had not been lost.

That's the feeling about Latos that will stick in my crawl, not a Giants postseason dinger that, to them, is just one of the many they've blasted in this marvelous run they're in.  Most everyone forgets that before the 5th inning of Game 5, Latos had allowed just a single run through his first 8 innings of postseason ball, that he'd struck out 4 while allowing nary a run through the first 4 innings of the final game of the series, or that one of the three runners on base for Posey's blast reached on an error by the shortstop.  The naysayers and eternal pessimists will say that his immaturity and hotheadedness led to a future MVP hitting a fastball for a dinger off of him, but they'll conveniently forget that the very same nebulous emotional hoopla had held the eventual World Champs at complete bay for 8 innings prior to that.

The pain of a brutal decade of Bowden ball, freakin' Al Leiter in '99, and the failure of Ken Griffey, Jr's tenure as a Red seems to get lumped into the heavy, heavy "what if" burden that the 2012 NLDS left in its wake, and that Latos gets more of that shoved at him than Cueto, Votto, or any other 2012 Red makes me wince.  Mat Latos was one of the three most talented pitchers to wear a Reds jersey in a generation, had ample amount of success in the process, carried a huge load through the best season the Reds have had in ages, and yet somehow sits as a posterboy for what might have been.

He was great again in 2013, as expected, but the Reds simply were not.  A compilation of injuries that both crept up and happened freakishly ended his 2013 before the one-game playoff in Pittsburgh and derailed his 2014, and by the time he was back on the mound the rest of the team had fallen so down around him that there was nothing his return could do to turn the tides.  Mat's a smart guy, and when his phone rang yesterday to inform him that he'd been traded, he was neither upset nor surprised.  Big baseball means big business, and the system is set up to reward success with piles and piles of money that has to come from somewhere.  While fans may only associate success with World Series trophies, the league and the union reward players financially for their individual exploits - as well they should - so despite the Reds having not brought home a trophy during his tenure, Latos was well aware that big money players on short contracts would be on the move as the Reds' payroll hit unreachable demands.

This time, that meant him.

★★★

Mat threw 101 pitches in his final start with the Reds, a game the 2014 edition of the club fittingly lost by - you guessed it - one run to the New York Mets on September 7th.  He went 6 innings, allowed zero earned runs, struck out 5, and lowered his season ERA to a very Latosian 3.25.  That capped his Reds' career, leaving him at 33-16 with a 3.31 ERA, 117 ERA+, and K/BB of 3.01 in his 522.1 innings in Cincinnati.  That was good for 9 bWAR, a very fine amount of production for the roughly $12 million he earned during his stint.

As Alonso struggled to stay healthy (and to produce even then), Grandal tore up his knee and faced suspension for using performance enhancing drugs, and both Volquez and Boxberger left the Padres after short stints, it became quite clear that the deal made in December three years ago was one that worked out marvelously for the Reds and Walt Jocketty.  You can what-if your way into how trading for James Shields, Gio Gonzalez, or any of the other pitchers potentially on the move at that juncture could have turned out, but I doubt you'll find a scenario that would have played out better than the one Latos scripted.

(Hell, getting Latos at all marked the first time in many, many years where the Reds actually had a farm system deep enough and talented enough to exchange it for a coveted player part of another team's core.  That the Reds could even go get a guy as both established and projectionable as Latos was something we celebrated from the start; that he turned out to be as good as we'd hoped for after he was acquired just made things that much better.)

Latos' time with the Reds coincided with a pile of 'what-if' scenarios - from the injuries to Cueto and Votto and the massive contracts doled out to other players down to Dusty Baker's departure and pinning the 2014 season to a rookie manager - but through it all he provided exactly what the Reds had intended for him to provide when they took a chance on him.  Not an ace, but damn close.  Not immature, but with a damn feisty edge.  And after yesterday, not a Red for life, but a Red who help headline one of the best damn stretches this franchise has had in its existence.

Thanks for three damn fine years, Mat.  Good luck in Miami.