After an offseason of conflicting reports and protracted negotiations, Homer Bailey’s contract odyssey has finally reached its conclusion (I’m sure I’m not the first person to use some form of that joke). Today, Bailey and the Cincinnati Reds agreed to a 6 year, $105 million extension that will keep him in the Chili Capital of the World through at least the 2019 season. After a disappointing start to his career, Bailey has emerged over the past two years, showing flashes of dominance amidst his vastly improved performance. But is he worthy of the nine-figure contract bestowed upon him?
It has always been expected that Bailey would develop into an ace. Drafted by the Reds with the seventh overall selection of the 2004 draft, Bailey was saddled with huge expectations by a franchise that had never developed a Cy Young Award winner. After an incredible 2006 season, in which as a 20-year old, he put together a combined 2.47 ERA and 156 strikeouts between single-A and AA, Bailey was rated the 5th-best prospect in baseball by Baseball America, six spots ahead of Tim Lincecum. Bailey was called up to the big leagues in 2007 amidst much fanfare (the atmosphere surrounding his debut was described by one writer as “Homer-mania”), but struggled in his first stint in the big leagues, and was shuttled back to Triple-A Louisville. Over the next three years, the trip to Triple-A would become a familiar one for Bailey; he started each season from 2007 to 2009 in Louisville, and posted poor numbers in his major league stints. In 2010, he finally made the major league team out of Spring Training, but went on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation, and was uninspiring even when healthy. Bailey failed to impress again in 2011, and started 2012 in similar fashion; after a poor start in Milwaukee on June 27th, his ERA stood at 4.42. At 26 years of age, it seemed Homer Bailey would never achieve the mountainous heights predicted of him.
And then, seemingly out of the blue, Bailey’s luck began to change. He won his next four starts, going the month of July without a loss. He dominated in September, averaging close to seven innings a start, with a 1.85 ERA. He threw a no-hitter. He struck out ten in his lone postseason start. Then, in 2013, his success carried over, and he had far and away the best year of his career. His fastball, which had averaged 92 miles an hour over the past three years, jumped to 94. His strikeout rate increased dramatically, and his hits to innings pitched rate was the lowest it had been since his standout minor league season in 2006. For good measure, he even threw another no-hitter. At the age of 27, he seemed to have finally realized his potential, becoming the starter so many envisioned he would be. And the Reds gave him the contract to match.
But was the contract really a good idea? I really don’t think so. Even in Bailey’s last two years, inarguably the best of his career, he really hasn’t been THAT good. Yes, he has the no-hitters and the above average strikeout rate. But he hasn’t exactly been as dominant as those statistics would indicate. Over the last two years, Bailey has compiled an ERA+ (which accounts for the cozy confines in which he plays) of 111, a shade better than Ross Detwiler and a shade worse than Wade Miley. BaseballReference says Bailey has been worth 5.7 WAR over the past two years; FanGraphs is slightly more generous, putting the total at 6.2. Considering Bailey’s annual salary in the new deal ($17.5 mil), and the marginal cost of a win (around $5 mil), Bailey must produce about 3.5 wins per season to be worth the price tag. If he regresses from his 2013 production even slightly, the contract will look like an overpay.
And the Reds, a team in a smaller market who has already devoted a sizable amount of money towards making Joey Votto the best-paid first baseman east of the Mississippi, cannot afford to overpay another player. Coming off their third playoff berth in four years, the Reds had several holes to fill this offseason; their center fielder/leadoff hitter became a free agent, and they had less-than-optimal choices at catcher, shortstop, and left field. But given their budget constraints, the Reds could not afford to fill any of those holes — their center fielder went to the Rangers, and their biggest offseason acquisition was Skip Schumaker. In addition, the Reds have two pitchers in Mat Latos and Johnny Cueto, who have not only proven more effective than Bailey, but are both up for free agency after 2015. With the Bailey deal, it seems unlikely they will be able to re-sign both or even one of those two players. If the Bailey deal goes sour, it will become near-impossible for the team to compete in the future.
With Votto in his prime and a strong nucleus of starting pitching, the time to compete for the Reds is now. But the Reds had to choose the pitcher who would lead the in the future, and they chose Homer Bailey. If Bailey doesn’t continue to develop — if the velocity spike is an aberration, if his strikeout rate drops to its previous levels — that future might not be too rosy.