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The Return of Mat Latos

The Cincinnati Reds will welcome back an oft-overlooked star, and his addition may determine the fate of the National League playoff race.

This guy has somehow never been an All Star.
This guy has somehow never been an All Star.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

There is probably going to be a team that sends a pile of prospects to the Tampa Bay Rays at the trade deadline for the privilege of having David Price make 10 starts for their stretch run towards the playoffs.  And, from a 2014 perspective, it will probably make a ton of sense for the acquiring team to have done so, as the 2012 American League Cy Young Award winner has firmly established himself as one of the top starters in all of baseball.

Someone will trade for him, and when he's traded, there will be a flurry of columns written by people claiming that whichever team plucked him from the last place Rays has 'won' the trade deadline, and that adding an arm of Price's quality will be the defining factor in whichever contested race he'll step in to.

Funny thing, though.  The Cincinnati Reds are about to make a move that could have the exact same impact, but you're probably not going to find a lot written about it anywhere.

Mat Latos will be on the mound for the Reds tomorrow, Saturday, against the 1st place Milwaukee Brewers, and it's exactly the kind of upgrade that could make or break where Cincinnati stands in the NL Central by the season's end.

Latos commanded a haul of prospects from the Reds organization when he was traded to Cincinnati prior to the start of the 2012 season, and at 6'6" and 245 lbs is hardly a player you'd expect to be overlooked, yet he's somehow managed to be one of the most consistent - and best - starters in all of baseball while sliding well under the national radar.  Of course, that's really nothing new to the guy, as he managed to fall all the way to the 11th round of the 2006 MLB Draft despite an arsenal of pitches any club would dream of.

From the beginning of the 2010 season to the end of the 2013 season, there were exactly 18 pitchers in all of baseball that accumulated at least 14.5 fWAR, the exact number of Mat's tally in that time frame.  The list of accomplishments and accolades garnered by that group is rather astounding:  48 All Star Game appearances, 39 Top 5 finishes in Cy Young Award voting, 11 actual Cy Young Award wins, and an MVP Award.

Of those 18 pitchers, there's only one who is younger than Mat Latos, and that's Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Latos, who is roughly 4 months older than Kershaw, has produced at a rate matched or exceeded by only the absolute best at their craft, yet he's managed to do it with little to no recognition whatsoever.  He's never been picked for an All Star Game, and he's never been voted as one of the Top 5 finishers in Cy Young voting despite compiling more fWAR in the last 4 full seasons than the likes of Matt Cain, Ubaldo Jimenez, Gio Gonzalez, Madison Bumgarner, Hiroki Kuroda, and R.A. Dickey.  In fact, out of that group of 18 pitchers mentioned earlier, only Latos and Doug Fister have been shut out of both honors, and Latos is four year younger with better K/9 and ERA numbers than the current Washington Nationals pitcher.

Price, nearly two years older than Latos, has a career K/9 of 8.3, BB/9 of 2.5, WHIP of 1.16, ERA of 3.26, and was deemed worthy of 17.3 fWAR from 2010 thru 2013.  He's the prized asset on this season's trade market, the piece that is supposed to change the playoff race entirely.

Latos, still just 26 years old, has a career K/9 of 8.3, BB/9 of 2.7, WHIP of 1.17, ERA of 3.35 and accrued those 14.5 fWAR mentioned earlier from 2010 thru 2013.  He's a Red, is back a month and a half before the trade deadline, and is about to make the Cincinnati rotation even better than it's already been.

Mat has battled through an elbow surgery to remove bone chips, a knee procedure to repair a torn meniscus, an elbow scare that ended up being a strained flexor mass, and a calf cramp that cost him an additional rehab start, and Saturday's start will be the first for him as a Red this season.  Through the 5 rehab starts he made in preparation for tomorrow, he gradually built up his pitches and innings and still kept runs off the board with a 3.09 ERA.  He's been champing at the bit to retake his spot in the rotation - remember, it was Latos who was supposed to pitch the one-game playoff against the Pittsburgh Pirates last October before his elbow issue put him on the shelf - and he's exactly the kind of ball of fire that the Reds have lacked while slumping through the first 65 games of their season.

The Reds sit 3 games out of a Wild Card spot.  The prorated portion of a healthy Latos season projects to be worth just under 3.0 fWAR.  Tony Cingrani - who Latos will likely replace in the rotation - has been worth -0.2 fWAR thus far in 2014.  The addition of Latos to this Cincinnati squad will be every bit as important as a David Price trade, and coupled with the recent returns of Aroldis Chapman, Jay Bruce, and Joey Votto, it means the 2014 Reds will finally have all their planned pieces in place.

How many teams in baseball will add an ace this season without sacrificing anything from their cache?

One.  The real season begins today.