Baseball is in Bailey's court
After several prior attempts, prospect looking to break into bigs
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Pitcher Homer Bailey's name has become so much a part of the Reds' lexicon, it would seem as if he's been established in the Majors for years.If the projections of instant 'can't miss' prospect were true, Bailey probably would be. The reality, however, is far from it.
"Hope put the big name on him because that's what happens when you're the No. 1 Draft choice," Reds manager Dusty Baker said.Bailey, the organization's first-round Draft pick in 2004, is at his fourth big league Spring Training -- this time seeking the fifth spot in the rotation. Although the top pitching prospect for most of that time with a mid-90's fastball, he's never come close to securing a spot while at camp. There have also been four less-than-successful big league call ups during the past two seasons. During that span, Bailey also earned the reputation of being resistant to instruction from coaches and veterans. This time around, Baker has nothing special to tell Bailey in camp that he doesn't already know. "Here's the ball, Homer," Baker said. "I'm not going to put any pressure on him other than what he puts on himself. I'm pulling for him, big time. He's one of the guys in the mix. "He's had some opportunity, but he's still so young. He's not close to having exhausted his opportunity. He's 22 -- you've just heard of him forever. As long as you've heard about him, you'd think he's 30 years old. We're going to keep trying to instruct him. The ball is in his hands, so to speak." Since Bailey likely still has the best stuff among the fifth-starter candidates, that's probably true. But the list of challengers for the fifth spot is as long as assurances are short. Micah Owings, Ramon Ramirez, Daryl Thompson and Nick Masset are the other serious candidates, but prospects like Sam Lecure, Matt Maloney, Ben Jukich, Pedro Viola, Jordan Smith and James Avery will also get looks. Back in 2007, the clamoring for his debut was at its peak when Bailey finally hurled on June 8 vs. the Indians. But in his 17 big league starts, he is 4-8 with a 6.72 ERA. His lack of consistent command is underscored by his 45 walks compared to 46 strikeouts. Last season was the most trying. The right-hander was 0-6 with a 7.93 ERA in eight starts with the Reds, and he was 4-7 with a 4.77 ERA in 19 starts for Triple-A Louisville. At one point, he went a combined 21 starts at both levels without registering a victory. "All you can really hope for is that you've gotten all the bad luck out of the way," Bailey said. "I think there were a few games where one little mistake I made possibly cost me a win. There were even a few games where we came back and won. That's so much more important to me than me getting a 'W' in the paper the next day. As long as I'm keeping it competitive and giving my team a chance to win, then it doesn't matter if I get the win or [Reds reliever] Billy Bray gets it. I don't care as long as the team in red gets the win." Bailey didn't make any changes in the offseason. October and November were spent hunting near his home in Texas, and his five-days-per-week conditioning began in December. He took 10 pounds off his already thin 6-foot-3 frame. "They kept saying gaining weight wouldn't hurt you, but I feel better now than I've ever felt," Bailey said. Bailey still has Minor League options left, so it's not fifth spot or bust. Baker is open to putting him in the bullpen as a long reliever if he doesn't make the rotation. "To me, it's a prime role for a young player if you can afford to do that," Baker said. "I'm not saying that's where we're leaning [toward]. It's just an option." And Bailey is open to doing what it takes to get his Major League footing. "I think it would be an adjustment I'd have to make because I've never done it," Bailey said. "But if Dusty said my job was playing first base today, all right, I'd do my best. Whatever he says to do, I'm going to do it." After that, Bailey's future will be squarely left in his own hands.
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.