Latos will try to re-establish his value in the Windy City (Bucs Dugout)
Baseball, like life, is all about timing. This is especially true in free agency, where hitting the market after a career year, as Zack Greinke and David Price did, can result in a windfall. Becoming a free agent immediately after an off-year, however, can mean playing for pennies on the dollar, if at all.
Mat Latos falls into the latter camp. From 2010-2014 he was a great pitcher, first with the Padres and then with the Reds. He had a 3.27 ERA (116 ERA+), 1.16 WHIP, and 3.15 K/BB ratio during those five years, averaging 180 innings per year. That brought him to the cusp of free agency; all he needed was one more productive season before hitting the market at 28, presumably as one of baseball's most attractive free agents.
Obviously that didn't happen, hence why Latos just settled for a one-year, incentive-free $3 million deal from the Chicago White Sox. After being traded to Miami last winter, he promptly ripped his previous team (Cincinnati), which left a bad taste's in everyone's mouths. He then proceeded to have the worst season of his career, going 4-10 with a 4.95 ERA for three different teams. Latos also spent time on the Disabled List and suffered several fluke injuries. As far as walk years go, his was the worst-case scenario.
So, rather than leading one of the deepest free agent classes in years, Latos quickly became an afterthought. Teams were quick to scoop up inferior pitchers such as Ian Kennedy and Mike Leake, paying them gobs of money while Latos sat on the shelf, collecting dust. Finally, the White Sox came calling yesterday, just in time for Spring Training.
What a steal for Chicago, who get a great pitcher still in his prime at a bargain rate. As bad as Latos seemed last year, his peripherals suggest otherwise. He still struck out more than three batters for every walk, and his FIP was 3.72--over a full run better than his ERA and just a tick worse than the previous year's 3.65. He was undone, it seems, by some bad luck on balls in play, an elevated HR/FB rate, and the second-worst strand rate of any pitcher with at least 100 innings. Natural regression to the mean says Latos will be better in 2016.
How much better is a different story. Chicago is a tough place to pitch, especially during the summer when the ball really flies. Just ask Jeff Samardzija, who endured an equally miserable contract year with the White Sox last season. Like Latos, Samardzija was also transitioning to the American League after spending most of his career in the Senior Circuit. It wasn't pretty.
Samardzija is just one of many cautionary tales for what can happen when an NL hurler plies his trade in the American League. It helps that Latos is three years younger and has a more established track record of success. It also helps that he's truly pitching for his next contract. Samardzija knew he was going to make bank no matter what, and sure enough San Francisco gave him $90 million even though he bombed last year. But if Latos tanks, he might not get a second chance.
So even though his contract doesn't have any incentives, it doesn't need any. The incentive is already built in. Latos has "only" made $22 million in his playing career (not including his current contract), which he could make in one season on his next deal should he return to form.
The White Sox are certainly hoping he does, as a healthy and effective Latos gives them a formidable trio at the top of their rotation alongside Chris Sale and Jose Quintana. Coming off a disappointing season and with the Cubs looking like the best team in baseball these days, they could definitely use a bounce back.
Almost as much as Latos.