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02/21/09 4:58 PM EST

Latos soaking up big league camp

Padres prospect adding changeups to 'electric arm'

PEORIA, Ariz. -- It was in May 2007 when Padres manager Bud Black and pitching coach Darren Balsley first laid eyes on right-handed pitcher Mat Latos.

The Padres were in Atlanta to face the Braves and the then-19-year-old Latos, an 11th-round pick from the year before, threw in the bullpen before the game.

"When I first threw for them, it was nerve-racking," said Latos, who signed a draft-and-follow deal later for $1.25 million. "Having [Trevor] Hoffman and [Jake] Peavy around then ... it's a whole different comfort level being around those kind of guys now."

Latos, 21, is in his first Major League Spring Training camp, which is pretty heady stuff, even for a pitcher who is regarded as one of the best in their Minor League system, even if he stands absolutely no chance of breaking camp with the team in April.

Latos is here to soak in as much as he can before Minor League camp begins in March, meaning he'll heed advice from Black, Balsley, part-time instructor Greg Maddux and, really, just about anyone else with Major League service time.

"I want to be around these guys to see what they are doing ... C.Y. [Chris Young], Peavy. From a pitching standpoint, just what these guys do in different situations and get any other information from the pitchers here because they've been doing it at a higher level for long," Latos said.

Latos fully expects to get to that level and the Padres wouldn't mind seeing his powerful right arm in PETCO Park sooner than later. But first, they would like to see him remain healthy for a season and get in upwards to 150 innings this season at the Class A level.

Latos split 2008 between rookie-league Arizona, short-season Eugene and full-season Fort Wayne. He had success at each stop -- he's a combined 4-7 with a 3.20 ERA in 31 career games with 143 strikeouts in 112 1/3 innings -- but was slowed last season by an oblique injury.

"He didn't have a full, healthy year last year. Once the oblique went, he came back, and it [the oblique problem] came back again. I think that we're shooting for 150 innings tops because of the lack of innings last year; we don't want to overdo it," said Grady Fuson, the Padres' vice president of scouting and player development.

What kind of upside does Latos have?

"He's got the most electric arm in the whole bunch. His arm angle, his command, his own mind-set has improved, his pace and timing. He's starting to grow mentally," Fuson said.

And he's learning that a high 90s fastball, one that served him well as a youth, isn't the only pitch he can rely on at this level. That's why Latos spent a good part of his offseason developing a changeup that he wants to employ in 2009.

"I probably threw 1,000 changeups so now I'm a lot more comfortable with it and can use it when I want," he said.

For now, though, Latos is in Major League camp to listen and learn. He'll certainly get chances to pitch in early Cactus League games, as the Padres won't handle him lightly.

"I'm here to help me make my way up to the next step," 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.