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Monday, December 19, 2011

How much does Mat Latos matter?

Mat Latos
Image via Wikipedia
I'm still thrilled about the Latos deal.  I know I'm probably more down on Alonso than most others, and for that reason I'm probably wrong.  But the main loss I see in the deal is Grandal.  I love Grandal, but that's an acceptable price for an outstanding pitcher of Latos's age and contract.  It bears repeating: the contract is a huge deal.  Without it, Latos is a top-30 pitcher (maybe top-15).  With it, he's one of the most valuable pitchers in baseball.

The Reds' rotation is currently looking like this:
1. Latos
2. Cueto
3. Leake
4. Bailey
5. Arroyo I guess.
6. Wood/LeCure/Chapman

Latos and Cueto make a very good #1/2, and Leake/Bailey are solid mid-rotation starters if they can last the season.  Arroyo's sort of a disaster, but at least his xFIP was still in the mid-4 range last season.  I still think Wood can contribute something, and wouldn't be surprised to see him take Arroyo's job by the end of the season.

To me, this is an average to above-average rotation.  If coupled with good offense and good fielding, this should result in an above-average Reds ballclub.  And if they get to the playoffs, I feel pretty good having Latos and Cueto going 1 & 2 in the rotation against most rotations in the league.  And that's even acknowledging that I'm pretty skeptical of Cueto's 2011 season.

Does this trade make the Reds good enough to make the playoffs, though?

Last year, the Reds went 79-83 in what was a very disappointing season.  Baseball Prospectus's adjusted standings, however, has them at between 82 and 83 wins depending on which set of data you use (83 wins based on runs scored/allowed, or component stats...82 if you include strength of schedule).  While obviously the win that's on the books is what matters for last season, I tend to think (with some data to back this) that estimated wins are a better forecaster of future team performance.

Let's be simple-headed here.  Latos is essentially slotting in for what was replacement-level performances from Volquez and hopefully some of Arroyo's dreadful outings.  If we assume the rest of the team will perform as it did last year (it won't), and that Latos performs at his typical 3-4 WAR level next year, we can reasonably expect that this deal improves the Reds from an 83ish win team to an 86-87ish win team.

Is that enough?  The Brewers (90-93 wins by BPro-adjusted standings) and the Cardinals (88-90 wins) are both losing big pieces this offseason.  I expect that the Cardinals, at least, will replace Pujols with above-replacement production.  And there's a decent bet that the Brewers will do the same.  The Cardinals lose more by losing Pujols, but then they also are gaining a starter next year in Wainwright.  Therefore, I think that we can ballpark that both teams will drop 4 wins or so off their BPro estimated standings pace

This puts all of three of the Reds, Cardinals, and Brewers in the 85-88 win range.  So we're back to a three team heat to start the 2012 season.  That's where I thought we'd be last season, so this is nice to see.  I guess.

To get the Reds to the point that they are the realistic favorites, however, they really need to add another significant piece.  Unless Mesoraco breaks out in a huge way (and it has to be huge to be an improvement, given how good Hernnadez/Hanigan were last year (~4 fWAR!)), I just don't see a position where the Reds stand to get better next season.  And declines are pretty likely at a few positions: hell, Phillips was a 6-fWAR player last year, which is awesome but quite likely his peak.  The most obvious candidate position for an upgrade is left field, though I will say that you can do worse than running Chris Heisey out there.

I don't know how realistic it is that the Reds could add someone who could make a big difference.  I don't think there's room in the budget for an impact signing, and free agent prices seem kind of crazy to me this offseason (3yr/$31.5 M for Michael Cuddyer?  Wow).  And in terms of trades, who do the Reds have left to deal after this deal?  I can see a team being interested in Travis Wood, but how much will they pay for him?  And is that return enough to ditch the Reds best insurance option in the rotation?  I'd be fine with trading away Juan Francisco or Billy Hamilton, but I think the Reds like them as much as any other team could be expected to.

My guess is that what we have is probably the team we'll see on opening day.  That's a team that can compete.  But I don't think they can be ranked as a favorite.  And frankly, I have this feeling that this team is held together by a shoestring.  I don't see a lot of depth to withstand injury here.  So, we'll hope for the best and see what happens.