Yesterday, in a somewhat surprising but not really kind of move, the Chicago White Sox released veteran starting pitcher Mat Latos to make room for Lazarus man Justin Morneau. Latos was fantastic through his first four starts of the season and then just the opposite through his last eight. When James Shields arrived on the South Side, Miguel Gonzalez was the one moved to the pen, though it was clear that Latos was working on a short leash. This past Tuesday saw Latos record his worst outing of the year: a six run, four and a third inning effort against the Washington Nationals where he also walked four and struck out a single, lonely batter.
The White Sox had enough, and Morneau’s imminent return to baseball activities prompted them to hand Latos his pink slip.
It was the second time Latos had been released in nine months, having previously been dumped by the Los Angeles Dodgers last September after failing to bolster their rotation following the July trade from these very Marlins.
The White Sox now have nine days to trade or release him. Latos was on a modest (in baseball terms) one year, three million dollar deal, and, at only 28 years of age and having put up 1.5 fWAR last year, should have no problem garnering interest.
The Marlins, if they’re wise, should be one of those interested teams.
Wait, where are you going? At least hear me out first.
I think at this point I must acknowledge the platform on which I’m making this argument. Fish Stripes is at it’s heart a numbers blog, and some of Latos' key numbers flat stink. His 4.77 K/9 rate to date is the lowest of his career (7.90 average). His HR/9 rate of 1.49 is the highest of his career (0.88 average). Perhaps most ominously, his fastball velocity is down across the board almost a mile and a half (from 91.5 MPH close to a flat 90 MPH). He may not be physically well, which you would think would render my entire case moot: Nobody should want to bring aboard a damaged pitcher, and Latos does have a lengthy injury history.
Let’s say, for the sake of continuing this article, that he is healthy, or at least, would be healthy enough to contribute in short order. Looking at the numbers above still wouldn’t inspire much confidence, leaving one to believe that there isn’t much of a statistical argument for bringing him aboard, and that is true. But there are a couple of statistical points in his favor; mainly, projections and the recent past.
According to Fangraphs, ZiPS has Latos projected at 0.7 fWAR and Steamer has him at 0.4 fWAR rest of season; not mind blowing numbers by any means, but a positive contribution, nonetheless. More importantly to my point, this puts him on par with one of his presumed rivals for playing time here, Tom Koehler, who is projected at 0.7 fWAR (ZiPS) and 0.5 fWAR (Steamer), respectively. Justin Nicolino fares even worse, at 0.4 fWAR (ZiPS) and 0.0 fWAR (Steamer).
Tom Koehler presently has the second highest BB/9 rate in the league at 5.40, behind only Francisco Liriano. Mat Latos has struggled with the strikeout this year, sitting at a 12.1% K rate, but guess who’s worst in baseball when you change the minimum to 40 innings? Justin Nicolino at 9.4%. I would argue that Latos has higher upside than either, particularly when improved velocity comes into play.
Because that’s the real question here, isn’t it? Can Mat Latos be better than Tom Koehler or Justin Nicolino? I think the answer, even now, is clearly yes. To say nothing of the Marlins keen lack of depth at the starter position, with really only Kendry Flores ready to jump in at a moment’s notice (unless, of course, you’re ready to subject yourself to Jarred Cosart again).
But Thomas, you might be saying to yourself, do you really expect Latos’ velocity to return, simply by coming back to Miami? Not necessarily, but you might recall that last season his fastball looked pretty flat in comparison to past performance, and after returning from the DL on June 13th, he showed significantly renewed life on the pitch, topping out at 95 MPH in an 11 strikeout performance against the Rockies in Miami. He maintained his solid performance and improved velocity through that and six more starts, to the tune of a 2.96 ERA/3.33 FIP, after which the Marlins
were able to flip the impending free agent for prospects in a lost season sent him to the Dodgers with Mike Morse in a salary dump.
Perhaps he is but a mechanical adjustment away from returning to said velocity. Maybe he is ailing and requires a little bit of rehab before being thrown out there again. Whatever the case may be, it will cost the Marlins only a little to find out if returning to a familiar clubhouse would do Latos wonders...and if it doesn’t, then it’s not like Mattingly and company haven’t burned through plenty of pitchers this season anyway. He is the classic low risk, high reward scenario.
Miami caught a glimpse of what a rejuvenated Mat Latos can offer around this time last season. I, for one, would be interested in seeing if he can do it again.