Latos adjusts in quest for rotation spot
Young hurler takes Padres pitching coach's advice to heart
PEORIA, Ariz. -- For as notable as Mat Latos' meteoric rise through the Padres system was in 2009, a leap from low Class A all the way to the Major Leagues, there were no shortage of humbling moments along the way.Before Latos turned hitters in the Midwest League and the Texas League into mush with his electric arm, he was served a huge helping of comeuppance in Spring Training in his first appearance in big league camp. It started with a moon shot of a home run he allowed to Cleveland's Victor Martinez in Goodyear, a ball last seen bounding toward Tucson. Then, after Latos arrived in the big leagues in July, he was humbled by polished hitters who weren't fooled as easily as the ones he toyed with in the Minor Leagues. It was all enough to make Latos' head spin, which is something that won't happen to him again this year. He's 22, but the experiences of 2009 have turned this brash kid with a big arm and big personality into someone more contrite this spring. "I think that I'm a lot more comfortable, being around the guys, than I was last year at this time," Latos said. "It feels a lot more comfortable going in than it was last year ... when I was the youngest guy here and didn't know anyone." Anonymity won't be an issue for Latos this season. He's generally regarded as having the biggest upside of any pitcher in the organization and though manager Bud Black refuses to simply hand him a spot in the starting rotation, the understanding is Latos will win one. He won't win it by trying to overpower hitters, something he could get away with during the Minor League season. Instead, the most important lessons from 2009, ones conveyed to him by Black as well as pitching coach Darren Balsley, were that he had to execute all of his pitches and have a plan in order to stick for good. "I think last year when he came up he was confident," Balsley said. "This year, he will be as confident because he knows that when he executes, he can get the job done. Last year it was about talent, but this year he knows he's good and the hitters he faces are good, so he has to execute things correctly. "He knows it's not about talent anymore. ... It's more about knowledge and preparation." How far has Latos, who won't turn 23 until December, come? Consider his answer to a question about the biggest moments from his 2009 season. There was nothing from his time in the Minors, where he was a combined 8-1 with a 1.38 ERA. Nor was it his first Major League victory on July 24 against the Nationals. "It was the games where I struggled in a little bit, where I learned that [if] I was up in the zone or didn't have my stuff where I needed it to be, I was going to get hit," Latos said. Latos went 4-5 with a 4.62 ERA in 50 2/3 innings over 10 starts with the Padres after his July promotion from Double-A San Antonio. All told, he amassed 123 innings pitching in 2009, which is why the Padres shut him down in September, after he more than doubled his innings (56) from 2008. The work and the learning continued after Latos stopped pitching, before games in the bullpen where he worked with Balsley on cleaning up his mechanics and such. "We still did a lot of work. You can't put a price on the information that he has shared with me and everything he has to offer. Even after I stopped pitching in games, I still worked just as hard as I did when I was pitching," Latos said. Balsley sent Latos home with marching orders, asking that when he reported to Spring Training he would have a better line to home plate in his windup and also not throw too far across his body in his delivery. The message stuck. "When you ask Mat to do something, he will do it," Balsley said. "The most impressive thing to me was yesterday when we were in the bullpen, the two things I asked him to do in the offseason, he did it. "He came in with a definite purpose this year and that's to make the Major League staff instead of just showing up for the experience. He already went through that once. Now he's trying to make the club." Latos showed some resiliency and adaptability last season. Six days after allowing five runs in 3 2/3 innings in a loss to the Cubs, he tossed seven shutout innings in a 2-1 win over the Braves on Aug. 25, using his slider and changeup effectively. It wasn't about throwing harder, but throwing smarter. "Just like any pitcher, he learned it's a tough game and that you have to stay focused and on top of your game at all times," Padres pitcher Chris Young said. "Mat went through it like all of the rest of us did. "I think he did a great job using it as a learning experience. He's got such a bright future ahead of him. It's going to be fun to watch." The Padres will continue to watch Latos' workload in 2010. San Diego general manager Jed Hoyer said Tuesday that Latos will likely throw around 140-150 innings this season. "He threw 120 last year and I think what he's done the last couple of years, it is prudent to watch it, whether it's in the big leagues or Minor Leagues," Black said. "As he moves into the season, we'll watch him." This much Latos is aware of. He realizes he'll be under more of a microscope in 2010. "You know, I'm taking it day to day and not worrying about tomorrow, next week, next month," Latos said.
Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.