The Miami Marlins made a lot of improvements in this past offseason, but the costs for a lot of those moves were questionable. One of them that appeared to be worthwhile was the addition of Mat Latos in a trade with the Cincinnati Reds. The Fish gave up pitcher Anthony DeSclafani and catching prospect Chad Wallach, but the thought is that they got a near-ace quality pitcher on a one-year rental back. In addition, the Marlins acquired a native Floridian and big Miami Heat fan who may be enticed to stick around when he becomes a free agent at year's end.
That time will come. For now, the Marlins are primarily worried about how Latos will recover from his left knee and right elbow injuries from last season.
1. Jose Fernandez
2. Henderson Alvarez
3. Mat Latos
4. Jarred Cosart
5. Dan Haren
Additional Depth: Brad Hand, David Phelps, Aaron Crow
Minor League Depth: Justin Nicolino, Jose Urena, Adam Conley
On the surface, acquiring Latos, who owns a career 3.34 ERA and 3.41 FIP, is a no-brainer. Before last season's injury woes, he had made more than 30 starts every year since 2010 like clockwork. He also proved that he was not just a byproduct of Petco Park, as his 2012 trade to the Cincinnati Reds yielded two excellent years pitching in one of the friendliest hitter's parks in baseball. In his last full season, he posted a 3.16 ERA and 3.10 FIP en route to a four-win campaign. As a complement to Johnny Cueto, Latos fit in perfectly.
So what's not to like? Well, that last full season was in 2013, and since then it seems a good deal has changed. It all stems from this:
Latos hung around 95 mph when he first arrived in the majors. By his second full season, he had settled in nicely at 92-93 mph. But all throughout 2014, he worked at a significantly lower velocity, down around 90 mph. The fastball just did not have the life that it once had just a season before, and it oddly coincided with not only a preseason knee injury that held him out for half a year but also some "right elbow inflammation" that sat him down for the final month of the season.
There is no way to tell whether this was just a blip in the radar or a significant change, but generally speaking, guys who lose as much velocity as Latos did tend to not regain their fastball speed back. If this is the new Latos fastball, we may be looking at a less effective pitcher than ever before. The disturbing trend from 2014 was that that fastball drop coincided also with a drop in strikeouts to the lowest rate of his career. Latos whiffed just 17.6 percent of batters faced last season, a far cry from his 21.9 percent career rate. Even with everything else remaining static, a drop in strikeouts is a huge problem for a guy who used to depend on them for results.
Latos's fly ball tendencies fit nicely in Miami with a fantastic trio of outfielders and an expansive set of walls, so home runs should not be a problem. His walk rate likewise has remained static. The strikeouts are now the one thing that stands in the way of his success.
Each different system sees a different Latos. Steamer is taking into account his lost velocity and projecting big issues in 2015. PECOTA sees a high-caliber pitcher still around, essentially the 2013 version, but still expects just an above-average campaign ZiPS is somewhere in between and still sees some value in him. Each of the systems sees the declining strikeout rate trend and, on average, they have him set up to whiff 7.2 batters per nine innings. If that comes to life, that would be Latos's second-worst rate of his career, but it would fit well with the narrative of lost fastball velocity.
We should probably approach this projection a little differently than the others. If Latos is truly most likely to retain his 2014 velocity, then the projection that takes that into account should be weighed more heavily. In this case, I did a weighted average that counted the Steamer projection as twice as effective as each of the other projections. In other words, each Steamer-projected ERA / FIP counts twice in taking the average, while the rest count once each.
Doing this, I arrived at a 3.63 ERA estimate for Latos, which is a reasonable number to have. Given his most recent injury history, it is fair to give Latos fewer innings than we would usually expect. A simple weighted projection would expect 165 innings from the righty. We will bump that up to an even 170 innings to match up more closely to the projection systems. This translates to a 2.6-win season for Latos, which is right in the middle of the above projections.
This is a far cry from what he once was, of course. At the same time, it is still another pitcher with an above-average campaign for the Marlins. He may not be the ace that he once was, but the Marlins are getting an able body to pitch for them in 2015 at a fair cost, and they can reevaluate him after the season ends to see what the team's next move will be. For now, Latos's on-field contributions (not to mention the awesome fun that is wife Dallas Latos's Twitter account and the power of Cat Latos) should be a positive for the Marlins this season.