With one day to spare before his scheduled arbitration hearing, and one season remaining before he would reach free agency, Homer Bailey has come to terms with the Reds on a six-year, $105 million extension. The deal will keep the righthander in Cincinnati through his age-33 season with a $25 million mutual option for his age-34 season in 2020. This extension, reported by MLB.com's Mark Sheldon, comes on the heals of two seasons in which the late-blooming Bailey finally justified his former top prospect status and the Reds' decision to take him with the seventh-overall pick in the 2004 amateur draft.
In parts of five major league seasons prior to 2012, Bailey had never qualified for an ERA title or posted an ERA+ above 93. However, in 2012, his age-26 season, Bailey threw 208 innings and posted a 3.68 ERA (112 ERA+), capping that regular-season performance with a 2.01 ERA in six September starts, the last of which was a 10-strikeout no-hitter against the Pirates in Pittsburgh.
Last year, Bailey was even better, despite an adjusted ERA+ a tick below his 2013 figure (110 based on a raw ERA of 3.49). He posted the best strikeout rate (8.6 K/9), strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.69) and WHIP (1.12) of his career and walked a tidy 2.3 men per nine innings for the third straight season (after posting a 4.1 BB/9 in his first four major league campaigns) while tossing 209 innings. He also threw another no-hitter, this one coming at home against the Giants and falling just one strikeout short of his 2012 no-no.
Those two no-hitters slightly inflate the perception of Bailey's overall effectiveness, but they are evidence of his increased ability to dominate a lineup. Perhaps the primary building block of his improved performance is an increase in velocity. As a teenage prospect, Bailey threw in the mid-to-upper 90s, but he was criticized for pitching to the radar gun rather than the hitter. Due to a combination of injury and poor mechanics, that velocity wavered when Bailey reached the majors, with his average fastball sitting somewhere around 92.5 mph from 2010-12, according to BrooksBaseball.net. However, last year, his average fastball was up to 94.2 mph, and he also threw his curveball and slider harder than ever before while increasing the use of his sinker, which he got up to a career-best 93.3 mph. In addition, he saw a spike in the quality of his splitter, which induced a swing-and-miss more than 20 percent of the time. Mix that increase in velocity with his reduction in walks and fly balls and there is clearly a lot of substance behind Bailey's recent gains on the hill.
However, Bailey did miss significant time due to shoulder problems in 2010 and '11, so any further time missed due to a shoulder issue in 2014 would have raised a red flag that likely would have prevented him from signing a contract as rich as this one. From that perspective, there was reason for Bailey to believe that he had as much to lose as to gain by holding out for free agency.
Similarly, Cincinnati had reason to act now. Having lost Bronson Arroyo to free agency and seen Johnny Cueto struggle and fail to stay healthy in 2013, the Reds needed to lock in an anchor for their rotation if they are to remain an annual contender. Should Cueto not bounce back this year, the club will likely decline his $10 million extension for 2015. Mat Latos has just two team-controlled years remaining and had a pair of minor surgeries this offseason, getting bone chips removed from his elbow in October and the meniscus in his left knee repaired just last week. Tony Cingrani has yet to pitch a full season in the majors and had his rookie campaign ended early by back problems, and Mike Leake, another former first-round pick, has been merely league average over his first four major league seasons and is also due to be a free agent after the 2015 season. Having been largely inactive this offseason (Cincinnati's biggest free-agent expenditure thus far: $5.5 million over two years to re-sign lefthanded reliever Manny Parra), the Reds had money to spend, and Bailey was clearly the best investment of that lot. That said, Bailey will have to continue to improve for the $18.3 million average annual value of his new deal to be anything other than a fair price for the prime years of a number-two or -three starter.