I love how the Mat Latos trade was barely even official before certain experts started proclaiming that the Reds overpaid.
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To land a potential No. 1 starter – one who is 24 years old, a year away from arbitration and four years away from free agency — it takes just slightly more than a few warm bodies.
Kudos to Reds general manager Walt Jocketty, who dealt from surplus and saved a few million in 2012 by acquiring Latos on Saturday for right-hander Edinson Volquez, first baseman Yonder Alonso, catcher Yasmani Grandal and right-hander Brad Boxberger.
And kudos to Padres GM Josh Byrnes, who obtained three potential long-term solutions and a Petco Park reclamation project in Volquez while positioning himself to move first baseman Anthony Rizzo in a separate deal.
Byrnes was not going to trade Latos unless he received a monster package. He got one, but how much exactly will the Reds suffer?
• Volquez, the Reds’ Opening Day starter last season, irritated club officials with his erratic performance and questionable work ethic, leading to a minor league demotion.
• Alonso was blocked by first baseman Joey Votto, who is under contract for two more years at a position where replacements are always available.
• Grandal, a mixed bag defensively, was stuck behind a more untouchable catching prospect, Devin Mesoraco, as well as the incumbent, Ryan Hanigan.
• Boxberger, who is very tough on right-handed hitters, could join the Padres bullpen this season and eventually emerge as a late-inning weapon. But he’s still a reliever, for goodness sakes.
Yes, Jocketty could look bad if Boxberger turns into a quality closer, Grandal outperforms Mesoraco and Alonso becomes another Tino Martinez just as Votto hits free agency after the 2013 season.
But of all the pitchers available on the trade market — Gio Gonzalez to Matt Garza, Wade Davis to Jair Jurrjens — Latos possesses the most upside.
Which is not to say that he is not without risk.
Latos has yet to prove that he is durable after missing the start of 2011 with bursitis in his right shoulder. The Padres were unlikely to invest long-term in a pitcher who not only raises physical red flags, but also is rather emotional and at times immature.
Time will tell if Jocketty made the right call; he had the prospect arsenal to land any of the available starters. But to succeed at Cincinnati’s hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark, a pitcher needs either strikeout stuff or a potent sinker. Latos ranked fifth in the NL in strikeout rate in 2010 and eighth in 2011.
The Reds now feature two top-of-the-rotation types, Latos and right-hander Johnny Cueto, along with a collection of threes and fours. They still can’t match the Cardinals’ front three of Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia and Adam Wainwright, or the Brewers’ front four of Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum and Randy Wolf. But one of those teams just lost Albert Pujols, and the other is about to lose Prince Fielder.
As one rival GM said, “Walt needed to make a bold move, and he did.” Jocketty is still looking for a closer, but the inclusion of Volquez in the trade figures to save the Reds nearly $2 million. That probably won’t be enough for Jocketty to get serious about Ryan Madson, but Brad Lidge and the Reds’ former closer, Francisco Cordero, also remain on the open market.
As for the Padres, they likely will not be as competitive as the Reds in 2012, but this is precisely the kind of deal they needed to make — the kind of deal that too often eludes other low- and mid-revenue teams with less courage.
Padres fans might squawk over the loss of Latos, who was a pivotal figure when the team contended until the final day of the 2010 season. But the Padres finally are building a formidable base of young talent, and their sudden surplus at first base actually is a terrific sign.
Alonso, 24, is a better pure hitter than Rizzo, 22, and though Alonso offers less power, his all-fields approach and low strikeout rate might make him better suited to Petco Park. One rival GM predicted that the Padres’ next move “no doubt” would be to trade Rizzo, and that certainly is a possibility. Rizzo, a left-handed hitter, could be an alternative to any of the teams bidding for Fielder.
Then again, Rizzo batted .141/.281/.242 in his first 153 major league plate appearances last season, and might be better off returning to Triple-A. He would not be the first slugger to require more seasoning. And as difficult as it is for the Padres to attract free-agent hitters, if they needed to choose between Alonso and Rizzo a year from now, it wouldn’t be a terrible problem.
The same is true at third base, where the Padres eventually might choose between Chase Headley and Double-A prospect Jedd Gyorko — that is, if they don’t trade Headley first.
Headley, who stands to make about $3 million in arbitration, is the most popular Padre in trade discussions. The Pads could move him this offseason for multiple parts, as they just did with Latos. But waiting to deal Headley would not be so bad, either; the Phillies, Reds, Tigers and Angels are among the teams that might need a third baseman next offseason.
The Pads likewise are deep at catcher, where Grandal joins an emerging group of prospects. They also have young pitchers coming – Casey Kelly, whom they acquired in the Adrian Gonzalez trade, and Robbie Erlin and Joe Wieland, whom they acquired for Adams.
Not all of the prospects will develop into quality major leaguers, but the more players the Padres gather, the better the team’s chances of success will be.