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02/14/11 3:40 PM EST

Padres ready to loosen reins on Latos

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Don't look for Mat Latos to become the modern-day version of Warren Spahn anytime soon -- Spahn once surpassed 300 innings in a single season -- but the 23-year-old won't have his workload monitored nearly as closely as it was a year ago.

"There's no leash," Latos said Monday. "It's a weight lifted off my shoulders."

A year ago, manager Bud Black and general manager Jed Hoyer were routinely peppered with queries about how many innings they intended to let Latos throw during his first full Major League season.

Would it be 150 innings? Maybe 175 innings? And how would they handle Latos down the stretch, when the team needed his electric arm during the pennant drive?

The concern was certainly understandable.

Prior to last season and well before Latos enjoyed a breakout season, winning 14 games, he was the prized arm of the organization and the club had zero intention of letting him burn out because of a heavy workload.

But Latos quickly developed into the Padres' top starting pitcher and then one of the best pitchers in the National League despite his age and relative inexperience. He threw a one-hit shutout in a victory over the Giants in May and had a blissful run where he allowed two or fewer runs in 15 consecutive starts, a Major League record.

Suddenly, questions about workload all but disappeared, except when -- after going 14-5 with a 2.21 ERA over his first 26 starts -- Latos lost his last five starts with an 8.18 ERA, dropping the regular-season finale to the Giants. He finished the season with 184 2/3 innings.

Black felt that the struggles Latos had were the result of mental and physical fatigue -- simply a pitcher going somewhere he had never gone before, well exceeding his innings from the previous season (122 innings, between three teams).

"It was a little bit of both," Black said. "He was getting to a workload he hadn't gotten to before. The life on the fastball, the crispness of his pitches wasn't there. He was putting a lot of pressure on himself. And where we were [in the standings] ... he probably felt he needed to do a little more."

Latos admitted as much Monday.

"I guess I kind of hit the wall ... at not the best of time," Latos said. "My goal is to still be strong in September."

To get there, Latos spent three days a week in San Diego this offseason with strength and conditioning coach Jim Malone. But there are no plans at all to have Latos do anything different this spring than last. Latos isn't working on new pitches. He's just trying to get better with what he has.

"I can always get better," he said.

That involves, of course, letting Latos have more rope in 2011.

"We placed some philosophical restrictions on him last year that this year have definitely loosened," Black said. "We think he's ready to take the next step of proving he's durable and can do what is expected of a Major League starting pitcher.

"The next step for any young pitcher is to continue to develop, continue to improve. As long as you're making your starts and doing your side work, all of that will happen."

And if that occurs?

"He's got so much ability that if he continues to work hard, he can be the best pitcher in the game," Padres catcher Nick Hundley said. "I think he wants to be. And if he keeps that mentality, he will be fine."

Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. Keep track of @FollowThePadres on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.