The Miami Marlins knew they would not have Jose Fernandez for half of the 2015 season, and they figured they would need a better second starting pitcher than Henderson Alvarez to carry the rotation through the start of the campaign. They shopped around and found a Miami native who would be an intriguing choice for the 2015 campaign. Mat Latos spent half of last season with an injured right knee and his effectiveness dropped significantly as a result. However, prior to that, Latos had been a force on the field. He had posted two straight 200-plus inning seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, and his strikeout rates had been a more than reasonable 21 percent for those two years. In 522 1/3 innings over three seasons with the Reds, Latos had put up a 3.31 ERA and a 3.51 FIP, which was good for between eight and 10 Wins Above Replacement, depending on the source you ask.
That type of pitcher, a guy who averages around 3.5 wins per 200-inning campaign, is exactly the type of pitcher a Marlins team looking to contend this year should acquire. The Marlins paid what seemed like a reasonable price for a chance at ace-level Latos on the cheap once more. The team sent Anthony DeSclafani, a starting pitcher with question marks but a decent chance at being a back-end rotation player, and Chad Wallach, a prospect without much consideration before his hot 2014 season, for Latos at just $9 million this year. If Latos performed up to his standards, he would have been worth a lot more than that salary.
Clearly, he did not.
Latos came into the season as the team's second starter behind Alvarez, but then threw his first start directly down the drain. He started off the year with an outing lasting just two thirds of an inning and he gave up an astonishing seven runs in that time. It framed his season immediately in failure, and any time he was sub par in a Marlins uniform, it added more fuel to an ugly tire fire that was brewing. Latos struggled to return to form until he went down with an exacerbation of his old knee injury on May 21. To that point, Latos had posted an ugly 6.12 ERA.
But not everything was terrible. Latos also posted a 3.48 FIP and 4.09 xFIP, indicating at the very least that he was a better pitcher than that ERA showed. His strikeout rate in May had bumped up to 20 percent, showing that he was closing in on his pre-injury numbers. And after his disabled list stint, Latos looked even better. He threw 45 2/3 innings after coming off of the knee injury, struck out nearly 24 percent of batters faced with just a five percent walk rate, and posted a 2.96 ERA and 3.33 FIP.
It was an entirely impressive performance, and it was all backed by the fact that his fastball velocity had bumped up. Brooks Baseball had measured his fastball velocity at 91.5 mph by May 21. From the time he returned from injury to the time he was traded, Latos had been throwing his average fastball at 92.9 mph. That 1.5 mph difference in speed usually correlates with a 0.40 ERA difference on the average pitcher. At this point, it seemed clear that the answer for Latos was that he simply had not fully recovered from the knee injury, and with the return from the knee, his ability had shown significant improvement.
Of course, by the time July had rolled around, the Marlins were well out of the playoff race. There was simply no need for the team to have anyone with a short-term course on the roster, and Latos had not shown enough to warrant Miami considering an extension. As a result, the Fish sent him off to the Los Angeles Dodgers along with free agent disappointment Michael Morse for, well, a whole lot of nothing in return.
Perhaps the worst part of the Latos situation was the subsequent trade to the Dodgers. The Marlins received no legitimate prospects in return; none of the players Miami received cracked their top 10 prospects list as per MLB.com, and the Fish are widely considered to have one of the shallowest farm systems in the game right now. They also were forced to sell off a compensatory draft pick just to make up for the salary of Morse. Latos had some semblance of value at the deadline, and the Marlins could have settled for a low-level C-ranked prospect who would have cracked their meager top 10 and provided some small added depth. Instead, the Fish found Latos as an opportunity to get out of their other poor investment and divulge themselves of Morse's salary. Yet again, the Marlins opted for salary relief rather than adding system depth to a roster that desperately needs it.
This deal hurts even more in retrospect after watching DeSclafani pitch a full season with the Reds and put up about a league average season over 180 innings. It is easy to bust this deal in retrospect after having witnessed the Marlins' season, but it hurts to see the Reds get five more seasons of a decent rotation cog out of a player who did very little for the Fish and ended up being used to get rid of more salary instead of helping this talent-starved roster. With the benefit of hindsight, this is one Marlins move they definitely wish they could take back.