The surprising San Diego Padres have cruised to the third-best record in the majors thanks to a combination of youth and dependable pitching.
Led by staff ace Mat Latos, San Diego leads the majors in ERA, WHIP, and opponent's OPS while ranking second in strikeouts and shutouts.
Just 22, Latos has a 12-5 record with a 2.32 ERA. Latos is unquestionably the team's best pitcher, having allowed two or fewer runs in 18 of his 22 starts this season.
Going into the season, GM Jed Hoyer expected Latos to be limited to 150 innings this season so as not to risk the young pitcher's future. However, Latos has already pitched just over 135 innings thus far. With the Padres expected to play significant games down the stretch and in the postseason, Latos would easily exceed his innings limit.
The Padres front office must now choose between shutting down Latos or letting him pitch the rest of the season.
If the Friars expect to play deep into October, they must choose the latter.
Sans Latos, the starting rotation would lack a true stopper. Although Jon Garland, Wade LeBlanc and Clayton Richard make for a respectable playoff rotation, none of them strike fear into opposing hitters. Armed with a plus slider and a mid-90s fastball that tops out at 98 mph, Latos leads the National League in BAA and ranks in the Top Ten in Wins, ERA, WHIP and opponent's OPS. Only Garland ranks in the Top Ten in any of those categories,tied for ninth in Wins. With his non-decision against the Giants last night, Latos has now allowed "two or fewer runs in 11 straight starts."
Simply put, Latos is an elite pitcher who should be considered a darkhorse candidate for the NL Cy Young award. A team built on pitching cannot go deep into the playoffs without its best pitcher leading the way. Should the Padres advance to the postseason, they must match up with the likes of Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, Tim Hudson and Matt Cain. Without Latos, San Diego has no chance of winning the NL pennant.
San Diego has not fielded a team this good since its last World Series appearance in 1998. If the Padres hope to advance that far again, they will need to lean on Latos down the stretch.