Reds and Padres Agree to a Blockbuster

It’s not cheap to acquire a cost controlled, and talented young pitcher, but the Reds were willing to pay the price to land Mat Latos. In return for Latos, the Padres received erratic starting pitcher Edinson Volquez, and three of the Reds top 10 prospects according to Baseball America. Those prospects are Yonder Alonso, Yasmani Grandal and Brad Boxberger. The impact of this deal will be felt immediately in fantasy baseball.

The biggest piece in this deal is unquestionably Latos. He has thrown 429.2 innings spread out over two full seasons, and one partial season in the majors. In that time Latos has shown the ability to strike hitters out, 8.65 K/9 and 23.5 percent strikeout rate, without sacrificing control, 2.83 BB/9. His excellent component stats have yielded a 3.37 ERA and 1.15 WHIP. The ERA is supported by his FIP, xFIP, tERA, and SIERA with some of them suggesting he has been a bit lucky, and others indicating he has been a bit unlucky. That’s the profile of an exciting young arm.

Unfortunately, Latos doesn’t come without risk and reasons for pause.. The first thing most will point to is that he’s now going to have to call Great American Ballpark home instead of PETCO Park. PETCO Park is notorious for suppressing home runs, and Great American Ballpark is a bandbox that generates many souvenirs for fans in the outfield seats. Latos’s batted ball profile is nearly even in groundballs, 42.8 percent, and flyballs, 41.3 percent, so expect his 0.82 HR/9 rate to rise. In addition to feeling a negative effect on his home run rate, his strikeout rate may suffer slightly as well. According to Bill James park indices, batters strikeout more frequently at PETCO Park than at Great American Ballpark.

Negative park effects aren’t the only reason for re-evaluating Latos’s fantasy value. Another knock against the hurler is that he has yet to surpass the 200 innings pitched plateau in a season in his young career. Latos ability to remain healthy with an increase in workload will hang over his head until he actually does so. Beginning the 2011 season on the disabled list with shoulder bursitis did little to help his cause in earning a label of being durable. Regardless of how his season started, he was able to add approximately 10 innings to his 2010 total, and finished with 194.1 this year. 2012 should be his first season besting 200 innings, unless of course the injury bug bites him.

Latos remains a desirable fantasy pitcher. That said, I’m sliding him down my draft board a bit. The probable increase in wins, now that he’s backed by a significantly better offense, isn’t enough to offset an equally probable increase in his ERA. Owners that view him as a burgeoning fantasy ace are assuming more risk than I’m willing to. It seems more likely that he’ll pitch like the 18-24th best starter than the 6-12th best.

Like Latos, Volquez strikes out a bunch of batters. His 8.67 K/9 is a near mirror image of Latos’s, but that’s where the comparison ends. Volquez strikeout rate is actually less impressive because it comes with a boatload of walks, 4.84 BB/9. Using their strikeout percentages does a better job of illustrating who is the more effective punchout artist. Volquez’s strikeout percentage is 21.7 percent, or 1.8 percent lower than Latos’s. Beyond his strikeout skills, Volquez’s ability to induce groundballs at a high rate, 47.4 percent, makes him an intriguing gamble.

There are more reasons to be skeptical of him being fantasy relevant, though, than reasons for optimism. The biggest hurdle Volquez will need to clear is himself. He does himself no favors walking batters. After joining the Reds by way of a trade with the Rangers, he broke out. That season, 2008, he threw 196 innings, kept his walks in check, 4.27 BB/9, and amassed a 2.22 K:BB. He has yet to replicate that success since.

Volquez control spiraled down the tubes, and his walk rate ballooned to 5.80 BB/9. Ultimately, he would undergo Tommy John surgery in August of 2009. Things got worse for Volquez. In April 2010 he was suspended for 50 games for using a performance-enhancing drug. He eventually returned to the majors in July, but struggled to shake off the rust. Completely healthy in 2011, he was a huge disappointment. Once again, he walked more than five batters per nine innings. This time, the Reds tired of his lack of control and demoted him to Triple-A.

He pitched well in Triple-A, starting 13 games and compiling a 2.37 ERA and 1.16 WHIP. Most importantly, he pounded the strike zone with a 2.99 BB/9. That success didn’t totally carry over in a September call-up, but his 3.80 BB/9 was still a big improvement over his earlier season work. Fantasy gamers in large mixed leagues or NL-only formats could do worse than taking a flyer on the 28 year old Volquez. The cost will be minimal, and the upside is there, but even those that draft him should watch his first few starts before plugging him into their starting lineups.

All three of the prospects the Padres received could play in the big leagues this year. Alonso is a shoe-in to break camp with the Friars. Where he’ll play is somewhat debatable. His best position is first base, but he did play some left field, and third base with the Reds this year. He won’t play third base, but the presence of Anthony Rizzo makes it less than 100 percent certain he will play first base. Also still in the fold is Kyle Blanks, who himself is best suited playing first base, but can at least fake it well in left field. My guess is that Blanks will start in left field, Alonso will start at first base in the majors, and Rizzo will either be dealt or spend most of the year in Triple-A playing first base. Rizzo is a below average runner, so transitioning to the outfield isn’t in the cards for him.

Alonso was drafted as a bat first prospect in the first round of the 2008 draft. His career minor league slash line is .293/.370/.466. Alonso’s power manifested itself more in the form of doubles than home runs in the minors, but exploded in brief time in the majors this year. After hitting just 36 home runs in 1179 minor league at-bats, he ripped five home runs in 88 major league at-bats this season. One possible reason his home run stroke was lacking in the minors was a broken hammate bone he suffered in 2009. That doesn’t completely absolve him of his underwhelming power output, but does help provide hope he could exceed projections that would usually be attached to a player with his minor league home run totals. As a left-handed batter at PETCO Park, he’ll have an uphill battle fully unleashing his power. Set the home run expectation at 15-20 over a full season of playing time.

Thankfully for the Padres, and Alonso, he can hit for average and control the strike zone working walks. He should find himself slotted in the heart of the lineup, something that will enhance his odds of contributing in both the runs and RBIs categories. His overall package leaves him as a corner infield or outfield option in large mixed leagues and NL-only formats, but not much more than that in the short term. Comparatively, I’d prefer Blanks to Alonso if both are everyday regulars, and expect he’ll come at a fraction of the cost in drafts.

The next most likely prospect to see major league action from this deal is Boxberger. He’s a hard throwing reliever that profiles as an eighth inning setup man, or possibly a closer if things broke perfectly. Boxberger split the season between Double-A and Triple-A, and capped it with time in the Arizona Fall League. I covered him in depth at The Hardball Times, but in short, his gaudy strikeout rate makes him interesting in fantasy games. The Padres acquired their closer earlier in the offseason trading with the Rockies for Huston Street. It’s possible they could turn around and flip him at the trade deadline, and that would leave open the door for Boxberger to save games late in 2012. Gamers in non-standard scoring leagues that use holds should add Boxberger to their pre-draft reliever rankings.

The third prospect the Padres received for Latos, catcher Yasmani Grandal, is the least likely to play in the majors this year. Grandal was a first round pick in the 2010 draft, and flew threw the Reds minor league system reaching Triple-A by season’s end this year. He only played four games at that level, so a full season there in 2012 is likely. His offense is his calling card, and that’s good news for his fantasy value. The biggest problem for Grandal in Cincinnati was that he was blocked by another offensive minded catching prospect, Devin Mesoraco. He doesn’t have any upper minors competition in San Diego, so he could be the Padres starting catcher as soon as early 2013. He will no longer be able to benefit from the friendly confines of Great American Ballpark, but as a switch-hitter, he won’t have his pop completely crippled by PETCO Park either.  His career minor league batting average in 402 at-bats is .303, and he is no stranger to ball four walking 63 times and sporting a .401 OBP.  Grandal isn’t a candidate to contribute in re-draft leagues, but is very desirable in dynasty leagues. Now is a great time to kick the tires on dealing for him in dynasty leagues, as it is possible his current owner could overreact to his new home digs and deal him at a reduced price.