Mat Latos, 21, was a top prospect coming out of Coconut Grove High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Perceived high signability and makeup issues led him to slide down to the 11th-round. San Diego, under the old draft-and-follow system, gambled that he would continue to improve on and off the field and that they may have a potential first round pick in next year's draft.
In 2007 at Broward Community College, pitching in one of the better junior college leagues, Latos went 10-3 with a 2.03 ERA. In 75.1 innings he struck out 102 batters against only 58 hits and 17 walks, allowing only 17 earned runs.
Which was enough to impress Broward's manager, Bob Deutschman.
"Honestly, he's the best that I've ever seen at this level," said Deutschman. You take a guy that can dunk a basketball anyway you want it, throw in a consistent mid-90s velocity, change and power slider, he's a big leaguer."
Latos had a solid debut in short-season Eugene, striking out 74 batters in 56.1 innings, but a painful oblique injury cut short his year in 2008. Still, when healthy, he pitched well enough to turn heads in the Padres organization, striking out 69 batters in 56 innings and only allowing 20 earned runs.
"After last year I promised myself that I would work harder in the offseason to make sure I needed to care of what needed to be done," said Latos. "Especially in the abs, legs and really stretching."
Padres manager Bud Black noticed the difference between what he saw in spring training where he struggled in the big league camp, as opposed to what he is watching now.
"I think in spring training he tried to do too much, which is the opposite of what he is doing now. I think he may have been trying to throw too hard and come out of his mechanics and may not have been as locked in as he needed to be."
Padres' pitching coach Darren Balsley, however, didn't necessarily agree with that assessment.
"He looks very similar to what he was doing in spring training to what he is doing now. The difference is pitchers aren't throwing all fastballs on very hard infields in places where the ball carries really well and the ball doesn't move.
"Every spring training in Arizona everybody gets hit."
Latos spent a total of four games and two starts in Fort Wayne this year, striking out 27 batters in 25.1 innings and allowing one earned run before the Padres determined that the Midwest League may be a tad too easy for the overpowering Floridian.
San Diego took the unusual step of skipping High-A Lake Elsinore and promoting him directly to San Antonio.
"He was pitching so well and was so consistent with his stuff and location we didn't think going to Lake Elsinore would be enough of a challenge for him," said Grady Fuson, the Padres vice president of scouting and player development. "We kind of lost some time with him due to injuries and from what we saw with his mindset, behavior on and off the field that this is a guy that has a chance to be an impact pitcher on the major league level."
At San Antonio, Latos continued on his torrid pace, going 5-1 with a 1.91 ERA. He struck out 46 batters in 47 innings against only 9 walks, allowing only ten earned runs in nine starts.
"Right before I left Gamby [Tom Gamboa, the Padres minor league field coordinator] and Dougie [Doug Dascenzo, the manager of the Fort Wayne TinCaps] had a talk with me, which was basically was, ‘you are doing amazing here, just keep doing what you are doing,'" said Latos. "'When you get to San Antonio treat it just like you are here, pound the zone.'
"Its not that I'm really doing anything different from before, its just that being healthy allowed me to show what I can do, and I believe I can pitch."
The Padres had planned to keep him in the minors until September, but a dominating performance in the Futures Game and the dismal state of the big league club convinced San Diego that the future is now.
It took Latos 75 pitches to get through four innings in his debut against the Colorado Rockies in PETCO Park, but he later admitted there was so much adrenaline going through him it was difficult to remember what he threw to any of the hitters.
His second start against the Washington Nationals was a different story. Latos went 5.2 innings and threw 94 pitches, 58 for strikes. He got first pitch strikes on 12 of the 22 batters that he faced and struck out five against two walks and five hits.
"I was down in the zone and making pitches when I needed too. Last time I thought there was too much adrenaline," said Latos. "This time, so many of them were taking strike one and I was just going after them."
"What impresses me about Mat is that he is not shying away from hitters and he is throwing strikes," said Balsley. "Whether it is extreme confidence in his ability, his stuff or mound presence, whatever it is, it's a good thing." Latos picked up his second win on Wednesday, going seven innings and allowing one hit – a solo homer – and a walk while striking out four.
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