GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Mat Latos was tagged with a few unflattering adjectives in San Diego -- from immature to hot-tempered to "way out there" -- but his new employers in Cincinnati are going to great lengths not to prejudge him. As long as Latos produces, he can collect moon rocks for a hobby, and they'll celebrate his distinctiveness.
After the Reds raided their farm system to acquire Latos from the Padres in December, Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker could relate to the pressure his new starter will face. In 1975, the Braves traded Baker and infielder Ed Goodson to the Dodgers for four players. Baker got hurt, failed to produce and was booed incessantly in Los Angeles that first year, so he understands the scrutiny Latos will endure as the most prominent piece in a 4-for-1 deal.
Baker and Latos shared a flight from Salt Lake City to Cincinnati for the team's winter caravan in January, and the manager passed along the following message: Don't twist yourself in knots to justify that you were worth the return package of talent.
"He's a different young man, but I told him, 'Just be yourself,'" Baker said. "It's like Van Morrison said: 'How are you going to know somebody else if it takes [more than] a lifetime to learn yourself?'"
As it turns out, Latos doesn't know Van Morrison from Van Lingle Mungo. The Reds, fortunately, are acquiring him for his 93 mph fastball and not his knowledge of Northern Irish rock icons.
Latos, 24, can be captive to his emotions, as evidenced by the silly spat he got into with San Francisco fans a couple of years ago and his penchant for venting on the mound. He's a South Florida kid who looks like a California surfer dude, and must now adapt to a new land-locked existence in the home of Roy Rogers and Skyline Chili.
"I'm not too worried about that," Latos said. "I'll go through my ocean withdrawals, but I'll be at the ocean in the offseason at some point."
Latos earned good citizenship points by arriving early to spring training and throwing in the bullpen before it was mandatory. Pitching coach Bryan Price spent the first few days of camp getting a read on Latos' pitching motion and his personality. During one conversation, they discussed Latos' assortment of snake tattoos. Price, a fan of the TV show "Family Guy," also enjoyed the tattoos of Brian and Stewie Griffin on Latos' calf.
"He's a rather gregarious guy, and he's comfortable around you right from the beginning," Price said. "There were a few articles in San Diego that said, 'He's tough to work with.' But you know what? I've got a 24-year-old daughter. It's not like you sign a contract and all these guys go from being 18 years old to 30, or from 24 to 35. If you have guys who are 24 years old who buy into the importance of work ethic and preparation, they're way ahead of the curve."
With 33 starts, 200-plus innings and some personal growth from Latos, the Reds will be better equipped to make the leap from 79 wins to playoff contention this season. If the kid pitches like an ace, they're the biggest threat to unseat St. Louis in the NL Central.
Flash back a year, and the Reds appeared to be a team on the rise. They had momentum from the franchise's first postseason appearance since 1995, the reigning National League MVP in Joey Votto, a solid core of position players around him and enough starting pitching to take the load off the bullpen if everything fell into place.
It didn't. Bronson Arroyo contracted mononucleosis in spring training, tried to pitch through back pain and allowed a major league-high 46 home runs. Johnny Cueto missed the first five weeks with a biceps injury. Homer Bailey made two trips to the disabled list, and Edinson Volquez lost any semblance of command and became a human home run dispenser. The Reds' staff ranked 12th in the National League with a 4.16 ERA and issued the fourth-most walks and second-most homers in the league.
General manager Walt Jocketty dug deep to acquire Latos, sending Volquez, first baseman Yonder Alonso, catcher Yasmani Grandal and righty reliever Brad Boxberger to San Diego. Latos rolled out of bed late in the morning of Dec. 17 and saw several phone messages from his agent, Hunter Bledsoe, who informed him that the Reds had surrendered a monster haul to acquire him. Some baseball people contend that Cincinnati surrendered a little too much.
"I think Boxberger is going to be a premium setup guy," said an NL scout. "Grandal, to me, is like a switch-hitting Alex Avila. This guy can catch and run a game. And Alonso can really, really hit. I think they really overpaid. The Padres picked the right guys."
If the Padres were thinking long-term, the Reds were betting on a quick turnaround for an enigmatic team. Cueto and Arroyo are healthy this spring. Bailey hit the weights, worked with a nutritionist and packed on 15 pounds in the quest to become stronger and more durable. Add 12-game winner Mike Leake to the equation, and it's possible the Reds could go with five right-handed starters -- although they're stretching out Aroldis Chapman this spring and giving fellow lefty Jeff Francis a look on a minor league deal.
"You would prefer to have a lefty in there, but we're gonna go with our five best starters," Baker said. "A good righty is better than a bad lefty."
Jocketty also upgraded the bullpen, acquiring shutdown lefty Sean Marshall in a trade with the Cubs and swooping in to sign Ryan Madson for one year and $8.5 million. Madson had reason to expect a whole lot more when the winter began, until negotiations between agent Scott Boras and Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. hit an unexpected glitch in November and Philadelphia signed Jonathan Papelbon. Little did Madson realize that his best chance at a multiyear deal had come and gone, and he would get precious little love in exchange for those 32 saves.
Madson throws his share of ground balls and allowed only two homers in 60 2/3 innings last season, so he's well-suited for the cozy environs of Great American Ball Park. If Madson is torn up inside about missing out on a $30 million-plus payday, he's doing a good job keeping his anguish to himself.
"What it boils down to is: I did everything I could last year and it still didn't happen," Madson said. "At this point, it's water under the bridge. I guess the worst part is trying to answer all the questions about it. To me, what's done is done. I'm just trying to get ready for the season now."
The Reds don't lack for questions. Contenders are supposed to be strong up the middle, and Cincinnati is at least part of the way there. Brandon Phillips, closing fast on free agency, ranks second to Robinson Cano among second basemen with 997 hits since his debut season with the Reds in 2006. Center fielder Drew Stubbs needs to put a dent in those gargantuan strikeout totals, but he has power, speed and a flair for chasing down balls in the gap.
The Reds are young in pivotal spots. Shortstop Zack Cozart and catcher Devin Mesoraco have a combined 29 games and 87 at-bats' worth of major league experience. Mesoraco, a native of that noted baseball mecca, Punxsutawney, Pa., must assume the dual responsibility of contributing offensively and handling the staff as he prepares to share time with Ryan Hanigan behind the plate.
"He's got a lot to learn in a short period of time," Baker said. "You hope he can be Buster Posey, but there aren't a whole bunch of Buster Poseys."
Latos, who turned 24 in December, is only six months older than Mesoraco, and the Reds have to wonder what's in store for Latos when he grows up. Is he going to take a leap forward and move closer to the Justin Verlander-Jered Weaver-Felix Hernandez realm of elite young right-handed starters? Or will those nagging maturity questions from San Diego follow him to Ohio?
Reds fans, like the team's management, are keeping an open mind. Latos' wife, Dallas, has received numerous tweets welcoming her husband to the city and wishing them the best in 2012. Latos received positive reviews on Cincinnati from his former Padres teammate Aaron Harang, and he's gearing up for the transition.
"I've heard Opening Day is one of the best, if not the best, in the game," Latos said. "To go from a baseball atmosphere in San Diego to a huge baseball atmosphere in Cincinnati, with all the history there, it's going to be an exciting year."
Just in case Latos needs a reminder, Opening Day in Cincinnati will come Thursday, April 5, against Miami. He'll be there, along with his fastball and his collection of Family Guy and snake tattoos. He's just a free-spirited flinger, looking to make his mark.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.