Reds-Padres trade a win-win in fantasy
If we had it our way, every pitcher would pitch all his games at San Diego's Petco Park. We'd merely ask that he'd be allowed to be supported by a better offense than that of the San Diego Padres; heck, if that offense could play the same game at a different venue, while backing the pitcher working at Petco, that'd be great.
Unfortunately, though our game is called "fantasy baseball," we're not permitted such fantasies. That's why this weekend's Mat Latos trade is so interesting from our perspective: He's gaining the support of a more potent offense -- the Cincinnati Reds' -- than that of the Padres, yet playing half his games at a much more hitter-friendly venue than Petco -- Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park. The drawback is that Latos, sadly, is losing all the advantages of spacious Petco.
Petco rated as the No. 28 venue in terms of runs scored and No. 23 in terms of home runs on our Park Factors page in 2011. In every one of its eight years in existence, it has rated among the five most pitcher-friendly ballparks in terms of runs scored, and in four of those seasons it was the most pitcher-friendly. Last season, Padres pitchers managed a 3.02 ERA at Petco; that was the third-best home ERA of any team in the majors. Opposing pitchers, meanwhile, managed a collective 2.80 ERA, including 58 quality starts in 81 tries.
Latos, as with most pitchers, experienced a tremendous advantage from calling Petco his home ballpark. In the past two seasons combined, he managed a 2.95 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in 27 Petco starts; he had a 3.40 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in his 35 starts on the road. That he has traditionally served up nearly as many fly balls (40.9 percent in his career) as ground balls (44.7 percent) could have something to do with that.
With the move to Great American, Latos is likely to experience a slight, and perhaps noticeable, increase in both ERA and WHIP. It's telling that left-handers managed only three homers combined against him at Petco the past two seasons, but 10 in his road starts, as well as 109 total bases at Petco compared to 155 on the road. Petco, remember, has a cavernous right-center-field alley, 400 feet deep, and measures 382 feet to right field. Great American, by comparison, measures 370 to right-center and 325 to right field, substantially smaller dimensions.
Latos receives a significant boost in win potential, however. The Padres averaged 3.66 runs per game in 2011, nearly a full run fewer than the Reds (4.54). Latos, meanwhile, ranked 88th out of 94 qualified pitchers in run support (4.63 runs per nine); both of the Reds' qualified starters, Mike Leake and Bronson Arroyo, finished in the upper half in the league in that category. Folly as it is to chase wins, there's little doubt that Latos' win potential should move from last year's nine to somewhere in the teens and that might be all he needs in order to offset any loss in fantasy appeal in the ratio categories.
But here's the obvious concern: Latos, one of the game's most carefully managed starters the past three seasons, now winds up on Dusty Baker's pitching staff. Baker, as experienced fantasy owners know, has historically had a tendency to ride his young starters hard, and has often taken the blame for their eventual injuries (Mark Prior immediately comes to mind). In Baker's defense, not one of his starters in 2011 averaged more than 100 pitches per start, nor finished among the top 50 in the category. Perhaps the performances of his individual pitchers -- his starters collectively had a 4.47 ERA, 21st in the majors -- had something to do with that, but examining the game logs of his best, Johnny Cueto, it didn't appear Baker was as apt to push his starters as hard in 2011 as in past seasons.
Sum it all up and Latos shouldn't be any less attractive a fantasy option in Cincinnati as he was in San Diego. In fact, he actually rises in my rankings as a result of the move. He's now 25th among starters, and 99th overall.
Don't criticize the Padres' haul in the trade of their ace, however. They picked up three premium prospects in first baseman/outfielder Yonder Alonso, right-hander Brad Boxberger and catcher Yasmani Grandal, as well as a useful veteran -- albeit one who was pushed hard previously by Baker -- in right-hander Edinson Volquez. Volquez will slide immediately into the Padres' rotation, Alonso and Boxberger could grab prime roles in 2012 and Grandal could do so as soon as 2013.
Blocked in Cincinnati by Joey Votto, Alonso appears to have the edge over fellow prospect Anthony Rizzo -- now the subject of trade rumors -- for the first-base job, though he could always shift to left field, as he had with the Reds. Though Alonso's minor league numbers don't exhibit the elite power you'd like to see from a first baseman -- he has never hit more than 17 in a single season -- and Petco will only suppress his homer numbers, his .293/.370/.466 career minor league rates, and .299/.354/.479 slash line in his first 69 big league games, show that he can contribute, even as a mixed-league corner infielder. Alonso could bat .290 and get into double digits in home runs, might quickly rise into a run-scoring position and might, due to a low-pressure environment in San Diego, even make a dark horse run at the Rookie of the Year award.
Volquez, an enigmatic starter for the past half-decade, should benefit from the move to Petco. After all, in the past three years combined, he has the highest percentage of fly balls that became home runs of any pitcher in baseball (15.0), despite what was a healthy 53.1 percent ground ball rate during that span. It means that when he makes mistakes, hitters hit them far and at least Petco offers some hope of those balls staying in the park. That's not to say Petco can cure all of Volquez's ills, as command has been a primary obstacle of his, but it increases the chances you could successfully pick and choose from his individual matchups.
In Boxberger, the Padres might have acquired their eventual replacement for departed closer Heath Bell; it's odd that the Reds, who have Francisco Cordero up for free agency, let go of the man they were grooming for the role. Boxberger managed a 2.03 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 13.50 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio in 55 appearances combined between Double-A Carolina and Triple-A Louisville in 2011, notching seven saves in 25 games at the latter. He'll almost assuredly win a spot in the team's bullpen, could be worth a cheap bid in deep NL-only leagues and might quickly work his way into the competition for saves in San Diego.
Grandal, finally, might be the Padres' catcher of the future, with that future beginning at some point in 2013. The No. 12 overall pick in 2010, Grandal managed .305/.401/.500 rates at three minor league levels last season, most of those in Class A and Double-A. He'll likely begin the season in Triple-A, but he could be in line for a midseason call-up. Grandal could struggle initially to adapt at Petco, but as a No. 2 catcher in a deep mixed or NL-only league, he'd be worth a midseason pickup in that event.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.
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