Posted: Saturday December 17, 2011 7:14PM ; Updated: Monday December 19, 2011 11:45AM
Joe Lemire
Joe Lemire>FIVE CUTS

Reds make bold move for Latos

Story Highlights

The Reds acquired ace Mat Latos in a 5-player trade with the Padres

The Padres get Edinson Volquez and three of the Reds' top prospects

Jimmy Rollins agreed to a 3-year, $33 million contract with the Phillies

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Mat Latos has posted a 27-29 record and 3.37 ERA in 72 major-league starts, while striking out 413 and walking 135 in 429 2/3 innings.
Mat Latos has posted a 27-29 record and 3.37 ERA in 72 major-league starts, while striking out 413 and walking 135 in 429 2/3 innings.
Lenny Ignelzi/AP

Five thoughts on a wild Saturday in which the Reds traded four players for Padres starting pitcher Mat Latos and the Phillies re-signed shortstop Jimmy Rollins:

1. The Reds, rightly, are being aggressive.

The price of talented, young, cost-controlled pitching in today's game is steep. Just as the Indians traded their top two pitching prospects and two other notable minor leaguers to the Rockies for Ubaldo Jimenez (who is only due about $10 million in 2012 and '13) at last year's deadline, so too did the Reds need to compile a premium package -- talented but erratic starter Edinson Volquez and three of their top 10 prospects in first baseman Yonder Alonso, catcher Yasmani Grandal and reliever Brad Boxberger -- to acquire the services of Latos for the next four years (one year near the league minimum followed by three seasons of arbitration).

But Cincinnati needed an impact arm such as Latos, because it couldn't risk a repeat of 2011, when the club regressed from a 91-win division title to a 79-win third-place finish in large part because of a rotation that ranked 13th in the National League with a 4.47 ERA. The Reds don't need a top-flight rotation to be successful given their elite offense (tied for second in the NL with 735 runs) and their homer-friendly Great American Ballpark -- Cincy's starters had a 4.05 ERA in 2010, which ranked 10th in the NL -- but they desperately needed improvement and now have a very good 1-2 punch with Johnny Cueto and Latos.

In his 2-year career thus far, Latos is 27-29 with a 3.37 ERA in 72 starts while demonstrating a home/road split -- 3.11 ERA in 31 home starts; 3.57 ERA in 41 road starts -- that's not too egregious given how drastically San Diego's Petco Park can aid pitchers. Interestingly, he's actually allowed a slightly higher home rate at home (one homer every 10.9 innings) than on the road (one homer every 11.1 innings). Latos tied a major-league record in 2010 with 15 consecutive starts allowing two or fewer runs.

"Mat is a big, strong young pitcher with electric stuff," Reds general manager Walt Jocketty said in a team release. "We consider him to be a potential number one starter who, contractually, we have under control for four more years. To acquire a pitcher who is ready to fit into the top of a rotation, you have to give up talent."

The Reds needed such a bold move because their window to contend is now. The Cardinals just lost Albert Pujols; the Brewers are about to lose Prince Fielder; the Pirates are probably still two years away from being a serious threat; and the Cubs and Astros have long rebuilding projects in front of them. Much of the talent the Reds gave up -- especially Alonso and Grandal -- are from areas where they had surplus talent.

For now Cincinnati, however, does have its core intact and, chief among them, its own franchise first baseman in Joey Votto, the 2010 NL MVP who is one of the game's five best players. Votto is only 28 but hits free agency after the 2013 season. He could command a $200 million contract on the open market, making it difficult for the Cincinnati to hold onto him forever, but as long as he's around and the rotation is better -- both of which should be the case for two more seasons -- the Reds could again be NL Central favorites.

2. But what a haul for the Padres

The blockbuster trade could well be a win-win for the two clubs involved. Trading a young, cheap starter with ace potential is never a rebuilding team's first intention. But it never hurts to listen to what offers may exist, and new Padres general manager Josh Byrnes received a bonanza for Latos: Alonso, Grandal and Boxberger were the Reds Nos. 3, 4 and 10 prospects, according to Baseball America, while Volquez was a 2008 All-Star who started Game 1 of the 2010 NLDS and Opening Day in 2011.

Volquez's career hasn't gone according to plan -- he had Tommy John surgery, a 50-game PED suspension and some attitude and control issues that led to a minor-league demotion -- but pitching in San Diego is often a great remedy. Not only is Petco a spacious pitcher's paradise, but also the Padres are an excellent fielding team, ranking first in the NL in Baseball Prospectus' park-adjusted defensive efficiency. (It should be noted, though, that Reds were second in the league, albeit some distance back.) His two chief problems last year were too many walks (5.4 per nine innings) and too many home runs (1.6 per nine); Petco can help with the latter and the Padres are likely banking on good coaching to help with the former. With his talent, he could still develop into a No. 2 or No. 3 starter.

Last season Alonso hit five home runs with a terrific .330/.398/.545 batting line in 98 major-league plate appearances, reinforcing why he was a top-10 pick. But he also played poorly in left field and at third base, meaning Cincinnati was best used packaging him in a trade to a team that needed a first baseman. The Padres weren't in dire need, given the second-half play of Jesus Guzman, the promise of Kyle Blanks (a heralded young power hitter who hasn't yet produced in 142 big-league games) and the dawn of the Anthony Rizzo era, who tore up Triple-A last year, forcing an earlier-than-expected major-league arrival (though he hit only .141 with one homer in 153 plate appearances). Alonso would seem to be the best of the bunch, both now and in the future, and surplus at a position could lead to a trade to shore up another hole down the road.

Similarly, Grandal -- who was blocked by fellow Reds prospect Devin Mesoraco -- can be eased into the big leagues behind incumbent starting catcher Nick Hundley. Grandal reached Triple-A for four games at the end of 2011 and may even start 2012 back at Double A, but he's likely to be on the Padres' big-league roster at some point during the 2013 season. And Boxberger, who has spent the past year and a half of Double-A and Triple-A as a reliever, isn't far off either at a time when the Padres are looking for bullpen depth.

While catcher and first base were less important long-term needs for the Padres than a few other positions, such as the middle infield where Orlando Hudson and Jason Bartlett are free agents after 2012, the overall talent was too much to pass up. Byrnes wasn't shy about wheeling and dealing when he was GM of the Diamondbacks, making the reverse of this trade when he acquired Dan Haren from the A's for a package that included starter Brett Anderson and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez. But don't be surprised if Byrnes has more up his sleeve either this winter or once the season gets going.

3. It's always Jimmy in Philadelphia

The length (three years plus a vesting option for a fourth) and value ($33 million with the potential of becoming $44 million) were question marks, but surely there was always going to be a Rollins return to the Phillies -- and both sides agreed to a fair-value deal.

Rollins is a former 2007 NL MVP and Silver Slugger winner, three-time Gold Glove recipient and three-time All-Star and has been Philadelphia's everyday shortstop for 11 seasons. But like any shortstop who just turned 33, he's starting to show some age-related decline and wasn't going to get the guaranteed five-year contract he initially sought.

After never playing fewer than 154 games from 2001 through 2007, he slipped to 137 games in 2008, 88 games in 2010 and 142 games in 2011; when he was fully healthy in 2009 and played 155 games, his on-base percentage was .296, poor for a leadoff hitter. In 2011 he hit only 40 extra-base hits -- after averaging 65 per season from 2001 through 2009 -- including only two triples, typically a Rollins specialty.

But Rollins has shown marked improvement to his discipline at the plate. Before 2008 he had never walked in as many as 8.0 percent of all plate appearances -- the major-league average is 8.6 percent -- but he has walked at least 9.2 percent of time in three of his past four seasons. And his lack of triples is likely more because of his swing than his legs, as he has stolen 47 bases in 56 attempts over the past two seasons. Thus, Rollins remains a viable threat in the Phillies lineup, even if Shane Victorino is better suited to be the club's leadoff hitter in 2012.

And he remains a very good defender, according to Ultimate Zone Rating. His three-year total is 14.9, meaning he's saved nearly 15 runs over that time, which places in the top quarter of all major-league shortstops. And that follows an NL-leading 12.9 score in 2008.

4. How the Latos trade affects the starting pitching market

In a word, enriches. The aforementioned bounties traded for Latos and Jimenez reinforced how valuable proven starting pitching can be. That means the general managers holding other known trade chips -- Gio Gonzalez for the A's, John Danks and Gavin Floyd for the White Sox and any of the Rays' eight starters, though most likely James Shields or Wade Davis -- can be extra selective in sifting through offers for their starters.

That said, no other package will likely match or exceed the ones the Padres and Rockies received, because of the contract statuses of the pitchers involved. Only Gonzalez, who is entering his first year of arbitration, might fetch nearly as much talent in return. It's why the Mets have reportedly balked on offers for Jonathon Niese that weren't enormous.

It is this high price that has led many clubs to seek relievers on the trade and free-agent market and try to convert in-house relievers into starters. The Rangers were fabulously successful in moving C.J. Wilson and Alexei Ogando and hope to do the same next year with Neftali Feliz. It's why the Red Sox are hopeful of moving set-up man Daniel Bard into the rotation rather than into the closing role and why they've reportedly kicked the tires on trades for established closers like Andrew Bailey and Joakim Soria.

The other fallout is that the remaining valuable free-agent starting pitchers -- Edwin Jackson, Roy Oswalt and Hiroki Kuroda, most notably -- all may see their value increase.

5. Infield singles

One evaluator said there could be a "big market" for Rizzo should San Diego explore a trade option. ... Alonso and Grandal were teammates at the University of Miami in 2008 before both became first-round Reds picks; Alonso was selected No. 7 overall that year and Grandall was the No. 12 pick in 2010. ... A Baseball Prospectus report said Cuban center fielder Yoenis Cepedes likely won't become a free agent until January, because of delays setting up his residency and getting clearance from the U.S. government.

 
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