Walt Jocketty’s mouth must have watered as he read the headlines during the past two weeks. Albert Pujols is leaving the NL Central, Prince Fielder is likely to follow, and Ryan Braun—barring a successful appeal—is out for the first 50 games of the 2012 season. Opportunity couldn’t possibly knock louder on the Reds’ door.
Sensing a chance to chase the franchise’s second division title and playoff appearance since 1990, and knowing that the lack of a frontline starting pitcher might be the biggest obstacle in their way, the Reds GM pulled the trigger on a blockbuster to bring Mat Latos to Cincinnati. The reaction on Twitter was unkind to the Reds. Rival evaluators told Buster Olney that Padres GM Josh Byrnes had fleeced Jocketty. Former GM Jim Bowden expressed his approval of San Diego’s haul in his own way. But, while the Padres will reap the rewards of this trade down the road, it has immense short-term benefits for the Reds.
In general, there are only two ways to acquire potential ace starters: develop them, or sign them to nine-figure deals in free agency. The Reds, by Jocketty’s own admission, cannot afford the latter option, and they haven’t had much recent success in producing aces out of their farm system. So, when the Padres showed a willingness to move Latos—who has as much upside as virtually any young pitcher in the game, and four years of team control remaining—Jocketty likely told Byrnes to name his price.
Yonder Alonso, Yasmani Grandal, Brad Boxberger, and Edinson Volquez form about as valuable a package as you will ever see heading to one team in a trade. But 24-year-olds with 6.9 WARP and a 23.5 K/PA rate over their first two big-league seasons don’t grow on trees, either.
Cincinnati’s window of opportunity is open—with homegrown talent backing Latos in the rotation, and Joey Votto anchoring the lineup with Jay Bruce—but the opening is much narrower than those of larger-market teams. By 2014, Votto will either leave in free agency or be a significant drain on the payroll, and replacing a perennial MVP candidate will not be easy. By 2015, the homegrown pitchers may also price their way out of town. And by then, the NL Central landscape may look entirely different.
The time is now, and Jocketty knows it. Even though he shipped out a bevy of talent, no one he parted with is either irreplaceable, or figured to significantly help the Reds during the next two years. Grandal is one of the league’s best catching prospects, but Cincinnati has a better one in Devin Mesoraco. Alonso has a promising bat, but he’s blocked by Votto at first base and unable to handle left field. Volquez’s bloated walk and homer rates were horrid fits for the hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark. And Boxberger’s most likely outcome is set-up relief, limiting his overall value.
The Reds badly needed an ace—someone who could dominate every fifth day, and who could match wits with a Roy Halladay or a CC Sabathia in Game 1. Latos, with a bit of improvement in his fastball command and a bit more maturity, could give them that. And if he does, few Reds fans will mind the price Jocketty paid to bring him to Cincinnati.