The Miami Marlins face the 2015 trade deadline later this month with important questions about their likely role as sellers. In particular, they have to figure out how much they want to sell off of their team, which is a mix of young talent that should not be dealt and players who have very little trade value. Two names that seem destined to come off of the books are those of Dan Haren and Mat Latos, two starting pitchers who are on their last year of their contracts. Both pitchers have performed well in different ways in 2015, and the Marlins may be able to squeeze some marginal value out of either one in a deal.
However, while Haren is a must-trade for the Fish, who would never consider re-signing the 34-year-old veteran, Latos is a slightly different example, as the righty will only be 28 years old for most of next season. He is young enough that he is entering free agency in what should be his prime, except that a one and a half year run of injury problems and an odd velocity drop have worked to tank his value overall. However, a more recent run of success may be building back up some value and could leave Latos in an awkward middle ground heading into his first foray into free agency.
All of this lends itself to an interesting question for the Fish: would they be better off keeping Mat Latos?
The Latos Conundrum
Latos finds himself in an interesting place. Two years ago, no one would have doubted him getting a major contract heading into 2016 free agency. After all, he had just finished his second season with the Cincinnati Reds and put up four- to five-win year in a different, more difficult environment for a pitcher. He had not been throwing the 94 mph he started off doing in San Diego, but Latos appeared to be an ace-level starter. Then the 2014 season happened and things all fell apart. His numbers looked fine in terms of ERA, but his FIP turned middling and he began slowly losing the strikeouts that would be critical to his game. His 17.6 percent strikeout rate was the worst of his career.
The biggest reason was the obvious two mph drop in velocity going from one year to the next. His ineffectiveness was in large part due to that loss of skill. One could have attributed it to his subacute knee issues, for which he missed a good chunk of the season. The injury had plenty of time to heal over the offseason, but when Latos returned, he still was throwing weak 90-91 mph fastballs that dipped even lower than that, and the Marlins had to be concerned that they gave up two reasonable future pieces for a bad one-year rental.
Then the Fish actually placed Latos on the DL for similar knee problems that he had the year before. When he returned, he looked like an entirely different pitcher.
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Not all of that post-injury, post-velocity increase performance is going to stick, but what we are seeing is a change in results following a real, mechanical change. Latos is doing something better with his pitches that is leading directly to results. Every 1 mph increase in fastball velocity usually leads to about 0.3 runs of improvement on ERA, and that appears to be happening as we speak with Latos. He is pulling a modern-day 2011 Javier Vazquez on us.
Of course, this is good for Latos in that it helps build back up his value. However, the entire season did still occur, and prospective teams acquiring Latos by trade or free agency will know that there was about a 140 inning stretch in his career in which a subacute-on-chronic knee problem affected his velocity. Who knows if that velocity will stay, or if that knee problem may return? Teams are going to look to pay for Latos not as a potential ace like two years ago, but rather as a risky, sometimes not durable mid-rotation arm. This will all work to deflate his market below ace-level pitchers like David Price, Jordan Zimmermann, and Zack Greinke. Latos is definitely a step or two below those tiers and may be alongside worse pitchers like Yovani Gallardo, Scott Kazmir, and maybe Jeff Samardzija.
The Marlins Conundrum
Usually, even being in a pitching group like those guys would be a non-starter for the Marlins. Latos is still going to earn close to $20 million a season for a time period between four and six years. Rick Porcello got a shade over $20 million a year for his contract extension in Boston, so a similar performance and a slightly better track record should earn Latos similar numbers. Miami hardly ever coughs up that kind of money.
Still, the Marlins would be retaining a guy who is currently flashing the ace potential he once had, with his main problem one that appears as of right now to have been reversed. What if Miami is paying, say, $18 million a year for a guy who posts a true-talent 3.20 ERA in Marlins Park? The deal suddenly looks much more appealing, especially on a 28-year-old.
More importantly, the Marlins are lacking in the depth department as it is. The team has very little depth on the roster and in the minors, meaning any talent they lose is not easily replaceable. There is only one building-block piece in the rotation on the team right now in Jose Fernandez. Henderson Alvarez continues to struggle with injuries. Jarred Cosart is currently a train wreck. Justin Nicolino and Jose Urena are throwing middling ball in Triple-A. The team has little to bank on beyond those names. Losing a potential contributor in his prime like Latos would be a difficult blow to the team.
This would not be a question if Miami were in the midst of a rebuild. However, the franchise has a small time window to succeed with Stanton under contract for five more years after this one. Stanton's opt-out after the sixth year of his extension means that the franchise needs to take every season seriously. Tanking a year is acceptable if it is part of a longer-term plan, but the Marlins have yet to commit to any plan over the long haul and are constantly shifting directives under Jeffrey Loria. At this point, the roster is too bereft of veteran talent to be gutted but too light on young talent to beyond a core of three guys to be up-and-comers.
The only solution is to supplement Stanton, Fernandez, and Christian Yelich with free agent talent. Signing a guy like Latos gives the Marlins a chance at some upside in free agency, as he may be better than his current market suggests. It is a risk, but the alternative of trading him for minor prospect is a weak one. The alternative is to either keep a player who can contribute two to three wins a year with upside for more for a free agent price and help keep the window open for contention or, at worst, offer the qualifiying offer and get a draft pick who may be worth about as much as a weak prospect.
There is an argument to keeping Mat Latos, either just until the end of the year or even beyond that. The question is whether the Marlins think it is worthwhile to spend the money to have talent support Giancarlo Stanton or whether the team will continue making minor sideways moves to supplement a thin roster.