From the Minor League Ball mailbag:
"First the Dodgers get Mat Latos in a trade, then they designated him for assignment. I know Latos has baggage and wasn't pitching too well, but he's had some good years too and is still pretty young. He came up from the minors before I started paying attention to prospects. Can you do a retro on him?"---Ken L., Michigan
Sure thing, Ken.
Mat Latos was an 11th round pick in the 2006 draft by the San Diego Padres, out of high school in Coconut Creek, Florida. His draft position was deceptive: he was considered a first round candidate on talent alone, but fell down draft boards because of excessive bonus demands, a said-to-be-firm University of Oklahoma commitment, and worries about his makeup and personality.
He didn't sign right away, but it turned out his commitment to the Sooners wasn't that firm after all. He passed up four-year college baseball to attend Broward Community College in Florida and keep his options open. This was back in the old "draft-and-follow" days when a team had almost a year to sign a player if he wasn't in a four-year school. Under the current draft rules that strategy isn't possible. As for Latos, a good junior college spring in 2007 convinced the Padres that he was worth the money, and he signed for $1.25 million hours before he would have re-entered the draft pool.
Latos made his pro debut in the Northwest League, posting a 3.83 ERA with a 74/22 K/BB in 56 innings for Eugene. He showed a 93-97 MPH heater in his debut, along with a plus slider. His curveball and change-up needed some work and his command was inconsistent, but his upside was clearly very high. I gave him a Grade B in the 2008 book, writing that he had the ceiling of a number one starter but that we needed to see some higher-level data. There were also continued rumors about difficult makeup but the talent was very clear.
Latos had health problems in 2008, missing much of the season with a strained oblique and a sore shoulder. He pitched well when healthy, seeing action for the Arizona Rookie League Padres, Eugene again, and Fort Wayne in the Low-A Midwest League, combining for a 2.57 ERA with a 69/13 K/BB in 56 innings. Scouts reported continued progress with fastball and breaking ball command, as well as an improved change-up. I gave him another Grade B in the 2009 book, writing that if he stayed healthy he'd be one of the best pitching prospects in the game.
Latos began 2009 back with Fort Wayne, but was promoted after posting a 0.36 ERA with a 27/3 K/BB in 25 innings. Moved up to Double-A San Antonio (skipping High-A), he dominated the Texas League with a 5-1, 1.91 mark and a 46/9 K/BB ratio in 47 innings, allowing 32 hits. The Padres promoted him to the majors at that point and he held his own, going 4-5, 4.62 in 10 starts, with a 39/23 K/BB in 50.2 innings, allowing 43 hits, moving just barely past the rookie innings limit.
Overall in his minor league career, Latos went 12-8, 2.49 with a 216/47 K/BB in 185 innings, allowing 149 hits. That's outstanding: K/BB, K/IP, H/IP, all terrific, FIPS excellent, everything was as good as it could be sabermetrically.
His major league statistics weren't quite as good: his K/IP dropped from 8.8 at San Antonio to 6.9 in San Diego, while his walk rate jumped from 1.7 to 4.1. However, considering how quickly he'd been rushed and his age at the time (21), he performed credibly.
Latos was excellent in 2010, going 14-10 with a 2.92 ERA, 3.00 FIP, and a 189/50 K/BB in 180 innings. On a per-inning basis that was the best year of his career, though he remained an above-average starting pitcher with the Padres and the Cincinnati Reds all the way through 2014, putting up better-than-league numbers each season and exceeding 200 innings twice despite nagging elbow and shoulder concerns. A knee injury cost him half of 2014 and reduced his effectiveness. As you know his 2015 season has not been great, although his FIP (3.54) is considerably better than his ERA (4.98).
As a prospect, there were two key worries with Latos: his makeup, and his health. Latos has an unusual personality. The positive spin when he was a prospect was that he was a free-spirit. The negative spin is best expressed by this quote from the 2009 Baseball America Prospect Handbook: "He tends to reject structure, lacks a commitment to improve and rubs teammates the wrong way with his flippant attitude."
According to my old notes, descriptions heard from informed observers in 2008 ranged from "he's just a different guy" to "what a jackass." His personality seemed to settle down some in 2009 and he was more receptive to coaching, although he was still brash enough to irritate veterans after his promotion to the majors. In 2010 he calmed down further and drew some positive comments from teammates and coaches for greater maturity and his willingness to learn.
Health was the other major issue as a prospect as he had to work through bouts of shoulder and elbow worries that limited his workload and caused concern about durability but didn't explode into serious problems. He averaged 32 starts and nearly 200 innings a year from 2010 to 2013 until the physical stuff caught up with him last season.
You don't have to be Mr. Positive to be a successful big leaguer of course, and whatever one thinks of the makeup stuff, Latos HAS been very good most of the time. He's ran up 19.7 fWAR over parts of seven seasons. He is still just 27. If fully healthy Latos seems like a plausible rebound candidate next year.