The Blue Jays might have an interesting low-risk, high-upside free agent option in Mat Latos
First the good news: the Blue Jays’ projected 2017 rotation of Sanchez – Stroman – Estrada – Happ – Liriano is expected to be one of the best in the AL, if not in all of a baseball. But now the bad news: the depth starters of Joe Biagini, Mike Bolsinger, and possibly Scott Diamond and Gavin Floyd are <ahem> “less impressive”. (Minor league arms like Conner Greene and Sean Reid-Foley are expected to be at least one year off). It would accordingly be highly prudent of the Jays to sign some depth options, ideally ones with major league experience.
Problem is, the strength in the Jays’ starting five could also be their greatest weakness in attracting depth arms. FA depth starters are usually looking for a starting gig – or at least, a good chance at one. The odds of a Jhoulys Chacin or Edwin Jackson beating out a Francisco Liriano for the fifth starter’s position are not high – and they likely know it.
But just as the Jays’ strength in the top five can work to their detriment, their depth weakness could work to their advantage. A decent FA starter could step right into the 6th starter role – and through it, into a probable 10-15 starts. But it would take an interesting combination of pedigree and warts for a a pitcher to be both interesting enough for the Jays to sign and flawed enough to accept a 6th starter position.
So let’s talk about Mat Latos.
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Latos was a star for the Reds from 2012-2014. His 3.31 ERA over those three years was 27th best in baseball, sandwiched between Chris Archer and Corey Kluber. But since then he has struggled, to the point where he was released by Chicago partway through the 2016 season and picked up by Washington on a major-league-minimum contract. He finished 2016 with a 4.89 ERA (5.40 SIERA).
Latos also comes with a reputation for being a negative clubhouse presence, though his own explanations make it less clear as to who is at fault. This could be seen as a negative – as Craig Borden pointed out, culture is important – or as something which could scare off other teams, potentially giving the braver teams a negotiating advantage.
So why even consider him?
In 2015, playing with three different teams, Mat had an unimpressive 4.95 ERA. But his xFIP was 3.69 and his SIERA 3.88 – both #3 starter level. His average fastball speed in 2016 was 90.8 mph – down from 91.4 in 2015 – but his velo actually improved later in the year. Latos will be 29 throughout the 2017 season – not young, but certainly not old.
The other thing about Latos’ 2016 is his control. His 2016 BB/9 of 3.86 was a full walk over his career average of 2.73. If you believe (as I do) that Russel Martin is one of the best pitch-calling and strikezone-literate catchers in the game, then he might be just what the doctor ordered for Latos to rediscover his mojo.
Latos might well be in the Goldilocks zone that the Jays are looking for: enough upside to make him interesting, but enough negatives that he might not be given a better offer. And he is unlikely to be expensive, so even if the experiment fails it does so at minimal cost.
The wild card
The wild card with Latos might be a move to the bullpen. When he was dominant for the Reds, his fastball averaged just under 93 mph. Could a move to the bullpen help him to regain that lost velocity, and if he did could he perhaps regain some of his past dominance? Could this be a Liam Hendricks situation, where a 91.3 mph fastball as a failed starter turned into 94.5 mph as a power reliever? Years ago, starters were reluctant to make the move to a bullpen role. But with the contracts that Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen are likely to receive this off-season, the transition might look a lot more attractive.
The bottom line
It would be great if the Jays could afford to have a Cueto as their 6th starter and a Chapman as their middle reliever. But the reality is that teams need to find value investments to succeed. Latos could very well be such an investment.