After a 75-day, 66-game absence, Mat Latos returned to action this past Saturday, and returned in a big way: He tossed six shutout innings of two-hit, no-walk baseball at Milwaukee's Miller Park against a Brewers team that has scored the seventh-most runs and managed the 11th-best weighted on-base average this season.
With that, Latos leapt 45 spots in my going-forward rankings this week, back into my top 100 overall players . . . but I'd readily admit that I might still be undervaluing him.
The rationale is simple: His once seemingly endless pattern of injury setbacks this season has me hesitant to call "shotgun" on the Latos bandwagon -- I'd prefer a seat in the back, please -- and while you should make your own decision regarding those concerns, I consider it smart to take a slightly conservative approach during his initial set of starts fresh off the disabled list. Still, if you do believe Latos is back, destined to remain 100 percent healthy and make 19 starts -- what he would have if he started every fifth Cincinnati Reds game the rest of the season -- there's little question he warrants a higher ranking, probably around No. 17 among starting pitchers and No. 65 among the entire fantasy baseball player pool.
That is a decision only you can and should make.
Let's trace Latos' recent injury history: On Oct. 11, he had surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow, an operation that wasn't expected to affect his readiness for the start of spring training. But on Feb. 14, the very date that Reds pitchers and catchers were scheduled to report, Latos had another surgery, this time to repair torn cartilage in his left knee, an injury suffered after he reported to camp a few days early. His prognosis was good at the time, and he was expected to resume throwing 10 days later.
On Feb. 27, he aggravated the knee while doing exercises, though by late March, he was throwing in minor league games in camp, with the Reds announcing plans to place him on the DL, give him two minor league rehabilitation starts to begin the season and slot him into their big league rotation about April 13-14. Latos didn't make his second rehab start due to a flexor mass strain in his right elbow, and he needed until May 24 before he was ready to resume his rehab assignment. What was once an anticipated 15-day absence had extended five times in length.
Still, Latos' career numbers with the Reds support his candidacy, when healthy, as a member of the starting pitching second tier. He has 28 wins and 40 quality starts in his 66 games for the team, his ERA 3.27 and WHIP 1.17, and he sports a 7.94 strikeouts-per-nine inning ratio that equates to nearly 190 over the course of a full year. He compares favorably with pitchers such as Anibal Sanchez and Jordan Zimmermann, and when considered a member of such a tier, the value differential among the individuals is typically a matter of taste.
Had Latos' extended absence not bothered me so much, I'd be more apt to restore him to his thick-of-winter ranking range. We'll see. Perhaps in three weeks, he'll be back there, should he string together three to five comparably good starts. In the meantime, I'm not endorsing paying quite that price to acquire him . . . though I'd certainly try to acquire him at the price his ranking below indicates.
Latos' "rising yet potentially still under-ranked" theme applies to a few other players this week, and if you disagree on my confidence level in them, feel free to pay a few bucks more to secure their services via trade:
Carlos Santana: To be clear first, Santana's No. 122 overall ranking (No. 5 among catchers) applies solely to our ESPN standard game, which is Rotisserie 5x5 scoring and one active catcher in a 10-team league. In a head-to-head, a points league or any league that values on-base percentage, he's worth noticeably more. He possesses one of the keenest batting eyes of anyone in baseball: His 18.5 percent walk rate this season leads the majors, and since his major league debut on June 11, 2010, his 368 walks rank third and his 15.5 percent walk rate ranks fourth among qualifiers.
Santana has batted .333/.435/.615 with three home runs in 11 games since his return from a concussion, and I do wonder whether the emergence of Lonnie Chisenhall, which has locked Santana into starts only at first base (nine of them) and designated hitter (two) since his return, has contributed. It was the first time all season Santana had a consistently dedicated role, and I envision a scenario by which he could rank as many as 40 spots higher in next week's column. That said, concussions scare me, especially with players who have a history of them (Santana also suffered one in 2012), and he also performed poorly in the season's opening weeks.
Josh Willingham: Another player with greater fantasy appeal in leagues that weight his ability to draw walks -- though bear in mind that his 22.4 percent strikeout rate somewhat counterbalances that in certain points-based scoring systems -- Willingham has enjoyed merely a slow climb up my rankings because of his extensive injury history. He has seven career disabled list stints and has never appeared in more than 145 games in a single year; he has played only 77 percent of his team's scheduled games since 2006, his first full season in the bigs.
Still, Willingham has flashed good power since his return from his most recent DL stint due to a wrist injury, batting .275/.427/.551, with all five of his home runs in 21 games. He is a player who in his Minnesota Twins career has averaged 31 home runs and 102 RBIs per 162 games played, so if you're feeling lucky about his ability to remain on the diamond going forward, he might make a compelling case for a ranking between someone like Jay Bruce or Josh Hamilton, similar .265-30-100 types of players when healthy.
Cody Allen: With him, it's all about how much you trust Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona, who claims that "at some point" he wants to get John Axford back into the closer role. That's a concern only in that Axford has a 2.20 ERA and whopping 27.6 percent strikeout rate in 18 games since his most recent save chance. His WHIP, however, is a bloated 1.71 during that time. Allen, meanwhile, has done nothing to warrant removal from the role, and there's no doubt he's the more talented pitcher of the two. If you're confident that there's zero chance Allen loses the job -- and I'm almost there -- he belongs ranked somewhere comfortably in the Steve Cishek-Sean Doolittle range, teetering on the brink of top-10 fantasy closer status.
Derek Norris: There's one obvious obstacle standing in Norris' path of clear-cut top-10 fantasy catcher status, and his name is John Jaso. Originally constructed at the beginning of the 2013 season, the Jaso-Norris platoon has been a frequent practice of the matchups-conscious Oakland Athletics, and even since the beginning of June, Norris has but seven starts at catcher (out of 14 games) to Jaso's three (fellow lefty Stephen Vogt started the other four). But while Jaso has been as susceptible as ever to weakside matchups in 2014, Norris has improved substantially against righties, with a .256 batting average and .379 on-base percentage that show that he's no liability. Frankly, considering he's 25 years old and in only his third season in the majors, Norris could probably use more time to further hone his skills against his "weak" side, and the Athletics appear to be affording him some: Twelve of his past 20 starts were against righties. Is that trend likely to continue or perhaps even swing entirely in his favor? It's possible, and your confidence in it should drive your opinion of him.
Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 250 'going-forward' rankings
For a detailed rankings breakdown by position, click here.