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Like his sort-of-eponymous pet cat, Mat Latos seems to have nine lives these days. With their roster scourged by injury and the September 1st deadline passed, the Nationals have called up the veteran hurler from Triple-A Syracuse to play a long-man role. His appearance for Washington gives him his fifth different major-league uniform since the start of 2015, something even those who doubted his continued efficacy probably couldn’t imagine. While he’s been something of an enigma—at least in terms of performance—over the past couple of years, this call-up gives us a nice opportunity to reflect on the pitcher he once was… and to review the first Mat Latos trade in a Retro Transaction Analysis. Given the players involved and how important the deal was both now and at the time, it’s worth revisiting the first trade involving Latos, all the way back in 2011.
Between the 2011 and 2012 seasons, the Padres were coming off an uninspiring season during which they’d dealt away the team’s cornerstone, Adrian Gonzalez. (I’m sure the idea of a Padres team dealing away a high-priced talent isn’t exactly shocking to our readers who are paying attention to the team today, but hey, here we are.) After dealing Gonzalez post-2010, the team mustered 71 wins against 91 losses in 2011. It wasn’t surprising to think that the Friars would be looking to make another change, and they had one particularly valuable asset to deal: their young and talented ace.
Latos had just come off his second consecutive stellar season. BP’s pitching stats Deserved Run Average (DRA) and contextual Fielding Independent Pitching (cFIP) didn’t exist back then, but we can use them to identify just how good Latos was during his rising 2010 and 2011 seasons. In 2010, he was exceptional—the young righty’s DRA was 2.77, which was 12th best among starting pitchers in the league. In addition, his cFIP of 80 seemed to prove that the underlying true talent level for that season matched the runs he deserved. Latos’ traditional metrics weren’t so bad either (14 wins, 2.92 ERA), and the season earned him some small consideration—an eighth-place finish—in Cy Young voting.
After that, Latos was just slightly inferior in the following 2011 season—almost in every way. His DRA rose to 2.96 and his cFIP climbed to 84, and both marks were still well better than average. His strikeout rate and walk rate nudged in unfavorable directions, his fastball dipped one tick to an average of 94 mph, and his ERA went up to 3.47. But still, even with all of these tiny decreases in skill or performance, he was a solid no. 2 starter with glimmers of ace stuff. By today’s metrics—and even some of those at the time—he was a four- to five-win starting pitcher.
Best of all, Latos was coming off his age-23 season, and four years away from hitting free agency at the end of the 2015 season. Any team that acquired him would be getting one very cheap season at or near the league minimum, plus three arbitration years. Even if you didn’t love Latos as much as advanced metrics did, or worried about the slight decline he showed coming off 2010, he still seemed likely to provide well above-average innings for years at a steep discount over your average free agent starting pitcher—provided he avoided injury.
At the same time, the Reds were a team on the rise, and an excellent fit for the big starter. It may be hard to imagine now, but before the 2012 season the NL Central looked a bit weak, and the Reds had some remarkable pieces and a window to compete. The previous spring, the team had signed Joey Votto to an enormous 10-year extension taking him through 2023, and their squad was loaded with top talent like Votto, Johnny Cueto, Brandon Phillips, and others. This looked precisely like a team with a window of contention spanning the next four years of Latos’ team control.
The two teams agreed on a deal that—at the time—looked like a true blockbuster. The Padres sent Latos to Cincinnati in exchange for four players, all of whom looked poised to help San Diego reload with young talent. Today, more than four years later, we can look back on the deal and see how Latos worked out from Cincinnati’s perspective and how the package received by San Diego informed the team the Padres became. The final deal was this: the Reds sent Yonder Alonso, Yasmani Grandal, Edinson Volquez, and Brad Boxberger to San Diego in exchange for Latos. Somewhat improbably, all five principals have had interesting major-league careers to this point, and currently play for teams other than the Reds and Padres.
As we go through each player in the deal, I’d like to call back to R.J. Anderson’s Transaction Analysis for the move from December 19, 2011. Through this, perhaps we can take note of the context of the deal as it occurred, and perhaps see if R.J. noticed something particularly prescient … or missed the boat entirely.
From R.J.’s analysis: “Latos might not be the final puzzle piece separating the Reds from the World Series, but he puts them closer to the trophy than they were before the trade.”
So far, so good, Reej—this statement proved prophetic. Latos was expected to be a rotation stalwart that made the team better throughout the regular season and menacing in the playoffs. For two years, he certainly held up his end of the bargain. The 2012 season was an immediate success, as Latos was a powerful piece of an exceptional 97-win Cincinnati team. Though they slightly outperformed their run differential, the Reds were still a force, and just one win behind the Nationals in the race for the best record in baseball. And not only did Latos eat nearly 210 valuable regular-season innings, but he did so with gusto. Though he lacked the performance highs of either of the two previous seasons, he earned 3.9 WARP on the strength of a 3.48 ERA and 3.58 DRA.
In the 2012 playoffs, Latos wasn’t quite as successful, and the team was bounced by the eventual World Champion San Francisco Giants. Latos was required to relieve in Game 1 after Johnny Cueto bowed out after a single batter faced. He acquitted himself well, going four innings and only allowing a single run on a Buster Posey dinger. But in the critical Game 5—a winner-take-all affair—Latos was ineffective. After giving up two runs to the Giants in the fifth inning, he again allowed a Posey home run. This one, however, was much more damaging: a grand slam that put the game out of reach and ultimately gave the Giants the margin of victory in their 6-4 win.
2013 was more of the same, in both ways. Latos returned to throwing like a top-flight starter, but the Reds couldn’t make it in the postseason. Though his strikeout rate was never as good as in his pre-Reds seasons, he posted a 3.16 ERA and 2.93 DRA over another 210 innings. As successful as he was, the Reds had fallen off from their previous season’s successes; they still made the playoffs with 90 wins, but this time as one of the two Wild Card teams. In the team’s win-or-go-home game against the division-rival Pirates, Johnny Cueto got the start over Latos, and the team was eliminated after a 6-2 defeat. #NotMatsFault
Those were the last good Reds teams.
Both Latos and the Reds fell apart in 2014, mostly figuratively but a little bit literally in Latos’ case. After receiving a two-year extension on the strength of his previous performance, Latos only pitched 102 innings around injury. Whether you believe those were good or bad innings depends on your metric of choice. ERA and FIP were kind—those marks were a respectable 3.25 and 3.62, respectively. DRA? Less kind: His 5.31 mark gives little credit for run prevention to Latos and much more to the context surrounding his individual performance. By WARP, Latos cratered from a five-win pitcher to a significantly below-replacement shell of himself in just one season.
After 2014, the Reds traded Latos away to the Marlins, recouping some of their prospect loss from three seasons prior as they moved into rebuilding mode. In exchange for Latos they received starting pitcher Anthony DeSclafani and minor-league catcher Chad Wallach. The end results of that trade are yet to be fully determined, but DeSclafani looks like a reasonably talented back-of-the-rotation starting pitcher with several years of team control, and Latos absolutely cratered after leaving Cincinnati.
Oh, here’s another quote from R.J.: “And, given the cost, that makes it a smart move for a club looking to win now. Besides, Alonso and Grandal amounted to talented but extraneous parts in an organization with Joey Votto and Devin Mesoraco at the top.”
This kind of also turned out to be true, with a little bit of a caveat. Alonso and Grandal were legitimately blocked by Votto and Mesoraco, two incredibly talented players. While the Cubs and Astros and Rangers and Royals are currently making the case that you just can’t have too many talented offensive players, Votto was already an institution (contractually and performance-wise) at first and Mesorasco was about to get his big break. Neither player could be moved to another position easily, nor could the duo of Alonso and Grandal. While it took Mesorasco a while to reach his potential as a backstop, and he’s dealt with injuries since his breakout 2015, you could say that dealing those two players probably didn’t affect the Reds all that much, despite the success they found with other ballclubs. We’ll talk about them more specifically in a moment, a moment that happens to be right now.
Grandal was the centerpiece of the deal, a top catching prospect with legitimate power potential. From the Transaction Analysis: “Grandal is a switch-hitting backstop who showed an advanced approach at the plate with contact and power skills across High- and Double-A this season. Should he continue to develop like expected, he could become a middle of the order bat. Given his position, that makes him a rarity.”
I’m not sure that Grandal ever made it as a middle-of-the-order bat, but he has certainly hit. He posted a .245/.350(!)/.412 slash line over three seasons with the Padres, which is very good for anyone but great for a catcher in Petco. The contact and power skills were there, in some measure, but his sky-high walk rate (about 14 percent over the 2012-2014 period) is what really makes him an offensive threat. Unreported at the time was his defensive ability; with the advent of pitch-framing metrics, it was discovered that Grandal is one of the best in the game at stealing extra strikes for his pitchers. BP’s metrics capture 34.6 framing runs for Grandal during his time with the Padres, an extra three and a half wins of value.
So what do the Padres do with their cost-controlled, inexpensive, golden goose of a catcher? They swap him out the division-rival Dodgers in an ill-fated attempt to jumpstart the team’s offense, landing Matt Kemp in the process. At the time of the deal, Kemp was due $77 million through the 2019 season, and had diminished from the MVP candidate he was several years ago. While not completely ineffective, Kemp was an offense-only outfielder on a Padres team stuffed with them during his tenure with the team. It turns out that Grandal is probably one of the three best two-way catchers in baseball today, along with Buster Posey and Jonathan Lucroy. Since going to the Dodgers, he’s been worth more than 10 wins thanks to his bat and glove.
Grandal was—decisively—the best player the Padres received in this trade, especially if you go by Baseball Prospectus’ catcher-value metrics. He gave the team a couple of solid seasons, but his continued value was sloughed off so that the team could trade him for a diminished Kemp and his enormous contract burden. In essence, San Diego leveraged all that value into years of mediocrity and quite a bit of money wasted on Kemp, who was later traded for a failed Cuban import who was immediately released. I guess you can’t win ‘em all. In the meantime, Grandal has been worth 10.5 WARP in less than two seasons with the Dodgers. Oops. And our Transaction Analysis probably undersold Grandal’s overall value, even though he never hit his offensive ceiling, because at the time the public likely didn’t properly value pitch framing. Oops again.
Former top-12 overall draft pick Yonder Alonso was the second impact position prospect that the Reds acquired in the deal. R.J. gives us this from his Transaction Analysis piece: “Despite the pedigree, Alonso lacks the prototypical power associated with first baseman. He relies instead on walks and line drives that result in doubles more so than home runs.” And while Alonso sparkled in his 2011 call-up with the Reds, his minor-league numbers seemed to indicate “good hitter” more than “game changer.”
Sure enough, Alonso would be a first baseman without much power whatsoever during his Padres tenure. After winning the Opening Day spot in his first season with the team, Alonso proceeded to hit more like you’d expect a second baseman to hit rather than a first-sacker. His True Averages over his four seasons with the Padres were .275, .262, .253, and .271; he was only slightly above league-average as a hitter, and never mustered more than nine dingers in a season. About half of his overall value above a replacement player (by BP’s metrics) was thanks to his above-average defense at first base, which earned him about half of the 4.2 WARP he accrued as a Padre. R.J. was right about the lack of homers… but other than 2012, he didn’t even hit that many doubles either.
As you might imagine, that kind of performance caused Alonso to wear out his welcome in San Diego, and he ended up being dealt to Oakland this past offseason for fellow gentle disappointment Drew Pomeranz. Quite possibly, this relatively-minor transaction is the greatest trade among the several A.J. Preller has made in his short tenure as Padres GM. Pomeranz was exceptional for the Padres this season, and that allowed the Friars to spin him off mid-season for a high-quality pitching prospect in Anderson Espinoza. Though considered a disappointment for much of his Padres career, Alonso came through for the team on his way out.
First, R.J.’s take at the time of the deal: “It looks like the Padres are making an upside play in hoping that Volquez can bounce back to his pre-surgery and pre-suspension form. If so, he could become a valuable commodity in the trade market.”
He didn’t, and he wasn’t.
In 2012, Volquez led all of baseball in walks allowed (105), over 183 mediocre innings pitched. In 2013, his ERA with the team was 6.01 despite his pitching in pitcher-friendly Petco Park, and the Padres released him midseason. Yes, Volquez replaced Latos’ innings in the starting rotation. No, those innings were not very good at all. There’s something to be said for the value of any pitcher who can take the ball for 325 innings over two seasons, but Volquez was about replacement level in his time with San Diego, and certainly did the team no favors in its rebuilding process. It’s tough to flip a pitcher for prospects when he can’t stop walking guys or giving up runs.
After his release by the Padres, of course Volquez found new life with the Pirates (thanks, Ray Searage!) and Royals—to much acclaim—during the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Though his fielding-independent numbers didn’t change much, his runs-allowed numbers sunk precipitously. He was, believe it or not, an integral part of the 2015 World Series Championship team. His time with the Padres? A complete failure for both pitcher and team.
In both hindsight and at the time of the deal, Boxberger—a touted reliever—seemed to be the least important part of the deal. From the Transaction Analysis of the time: “Boxberger’s control issues, stemming from inconsistent mechanics, make him a better fit for the pen, as does his gaudy strikeout numbers that saw him reach 13.5 punch-outs per nine innings pitched in over 60 innings between Double- and Triple-A. Boxberger lacks the heat of a normal late-inning reliever with a low-to-mid-90s fastball, and his calling card as a starter was arsenal depth rather than arsenal quality.”
As it turns out, Boxberger has been able to keep a solid strikeout rate in the major leagues since the deal. During his Padres career, he had two seasons where he split time between Tucson and San Diego in 2012 and 2013. The minor-league numbers were excellent, but the big-league numbers showed a wide difference between his ERA and his FIP. In each of those short seasons, Boxberger had an ERA that was about a run and a half lower than his FIP, and BP’s DRA metric skews closer to his replacement-level FIP than his great-reliever ERA. Still, the strikeout rate and his age (2013 was his age-25 season) made him an interesting reliever going forward.
Before the 2014 season, the Padres made Boxberger part of a multi-player deal with Tampa Bay, sending him, Logan Forsythe, Matt Andriese, and others to the Rays in exchange for Jesse Hahn and Alex Torres. Unfortunately for San Diego, it seems likely that the best three players in this deal were Forsythe, Boxberger, and perhaps Andriese, all of whom left the team in the move. After heading to Tampa, Boxberger promptly made the Padres look silly for a hot minute, posting a two-win relief season in 2014 when he slashed his walk rate in half down to 2.8 batters per nine. That earned him the closer job in 2015 (41 saves), but he also reverted to his walk-the-world ways, and has since been slightly better than replacement level for Tampa.
The return makes the deal look slightly better over time, but only due to the players that Torres and Hahn were later dealt for. Torres begat Cory Mazzoni and Brad Wieck—Mazzoni appears to have been a bust but Wieck is putting up crazy numbers in the mid-minors this season, so maybe he could eventually turn up in San Diego. Hahn, meanwhile, turned in a solid partial season in 2014 before being flipped for All-Star catcher Derek Norris. Norris was quite effective for the Padres in 2015 (.263 True Average, 3.3 WARP), but looks cooked at the plate with a .185/.251/.329 slash line this year. But with the success that Forsythe and Boxberger have had in Tampa, the Padres probably wish they could have a mulligan on this trade.
In hindsight, who won this blockbuster trade? Was it the Reds, who acquired the frontline starter they needed at the cost of many wins of future value, but never broke through in the playoffs? Or was it the Padres, who acquired four legitimate big leaguers as part of the deal, but never were able to leverage them into the rebuilt team they sought? How often does a team make a deal for three prospects and then—more or less—hit on every single one of them? It was only the established big leaguer that truly failed the Padres. In addition, in the case of three of the players acquired, they were converted into value almost inversely proportional to the value that the acquired player provided. For example, Yonder Alonso wasn’t a particularly good player for the Padres —he “earned” the team 4.2 WARP over four seasons, effectively serving as a first baseman of middling, slightly below-average quality. But he returned via trade Pomeranz, who was worth almost that same value in just half a season before he was spun off for a top-25 prospect. Meanwhile, Yasmani Grandal earned the Padres extensive surplus value: 8.3 WARP over 216 games spread over three seasons. He was traded for Matt Kemp, who was worth 3.5 WARP over a year and a half, but cost the team a tremendous amount of money.
In the end, it might be fair to say that both teams got something close to the performance they wanted—Volquez excluded—but failed to leverage that performance into the team-wide state they desired. The Reds wanted to make The Leap from contender to champion, and missed. The Padres wanted to set in motion a rebuilding effort that would have them ready to compete in a few years. The players involved in the deal mostly did their parts, but the teams never really got what they wanted. So I’ll leave you with this parting thought: Do we consider this a win for process over results, or results over process?
Thank you for reading
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