The Miami Marlins came off a trade that has been lambasted left and right as a deal in which they paid too much (including top prospect Andrew Heaney) for not enough (Dee Gordon and a potentially free and extraneous / retired Dan Haren). The Los Angeles Dodgers deal that brought Gordon and Haren to Miami seemed like a gross overpay to acquire an upgrade at second base. The cost of Heaney and the bevy of other lesser but interesting assets was used to buy a cost-controlled but low-upside option.
The Fish also felt, despite their significant pitching depth, that they needed an upgrade at starting pitcher as well. Though rumors tied them to lesser names like Wade Miley, the team instead pulled off a deal for Cincinnati Reds righty Mat Latos. Unlike the initial trade for Gordon, the Fish are trading a lot less for one valuable year of Latos, as the team shipped away prospects Anthony DeSclafani and Chad Wallach for Latos's final arbitration season.
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Mat Latos, Front-Line Starter?
The Marlins claimed they wanted a front-line starter to hold Jose Fernandez's ace spot until he returned to the team by midseason. They got a reasonable fascimile in Latos, who is a better pitcher than anyone else on the current Marlins staff not named Fernandez. Latos holds a career ERA of 3.34 and a FIP of 3.41. Those numbers are essentially 10 percent better than the league average over the same time frame. No Marlins starter has a three-year mark similar to that, though Henderson Alvarez's last two seasons come close.
Latos does this in ways that are at least repeatable. He owns a career 21.2 percent strikeout rate and a reasonable 7.2 percent walk rate. Even after moving to the Great American Ballpark from Petco Park, he retained his strong home run rates, and that can only remain low now that he is moving back to a homer-light environment like Marlins Park.
But there are definitely some concerns about Latos. This is the second straight season that there were concerns about his throwing elbow, as he missed 19 games last season due to elbow concerns and there were rumblings that his tailing off in the second half of 2013 was due to elbow problems. The other injury he had last year, a left knee meniscal tear, is not expected to affect him this season, but it does put a dent in his previously uninjured track record.
Latos's numbers are also trending generally downward. His strikeouts hit a career low, and that might be concerning with the injury talk as well. If this were an isolated injury, there may be less to worry about, but with two years of discussion and about a full season of less-than-stellar play. But last season, despite these concerns and a strikeout rate than hit just 17.6 percent, he still posted a 3.25 ERA and 3.65 FIP and would have been worth close to three wins had he pitched a full year.
It is difficult to guess just how much Latos will be worth next season given some of the uncertainties involved. He has averaged 2.5 to three wins per season throughout his entire career. He is just 28 years old next season. It is not unreasonable to suggest another season similar to those numbers. If he were worth 2.8 wins next season, for example, that might equate to $18 million worth of salary. He is expected to earn $8.4 million in his final arbitration season, which means the Marlins are getting about $10 million in surplus value from Latos's performance.
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Unlike the previous trade for Gordon, Miami traded a lot less to acquire him. Anthony DeSclafani appears to be another in the long line of strike-pounding Marlins starters who may eat innings in the back of the rotation in the future. Unlike Heaney or to a lesser extent Justin Nicolino and Jose Urena, however, DeSclafani's odds of doing that were a bit lessened. He is probably ready for a big league trial given how well he pitched in Triple-A, but he may turn out to be a bullpen righty rather than a true starter.
Chad Wallach came relatively unheralded out of the powerhouse Cal State-Fullerton, but he had a dominant year in Low-A and continued it in High-A. He hit a combined .322/.431/.457 at both levels, and such video game numbers attracted attention. However, Wallach was definitely behind former Marlin Austin Barnes and J.T. Realmuto in the future catcher department, and he was 22 years old in both levels and coming out of college. He was profiled before a defense-first backup profile, and he probably would have still been that without a similar campaign in 2015 in Double-A. Miami was safe to trade him as he represented depth at one of the few positions Miami had.
Neither player probably rated as more than a B-minus prospect at this point, and Wallach was not on most lists before last season. It is not necessarily likely that either player will turn into more than a bullpen or bench player in the majors. DeSclafani is limited, and Wallach was too far from the bigs to tell. Both guys were ultimately expendable for a Marlins team trying to buy wins for this year.
The Marlins picked up likely around two wins this season by adding Latos and replacing the worst starter in their rotation. In the first half, that would be a near replacement-level player like Hand or DeSclafani, while in the second half that is likely to be Tom Koehler. The Marlins are getting a solid upgrade on a position, and the send-off was not an overpay but a deal involving two fringier players. Miami was smart to avoid a disastrous move for a one-year rental.