Tuesday February 23rd, 2010

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- A steady rain fell as the manager and the GM stood side-by-side, arms crossed, watching the home bullpen. It was a Saturday at the Reds spring training home and in front of them a quartet of young Reds hurlers were unleashing fastballs through the cold morning air. Dusty Baker turned to Walt Jocketty. "You got to like our young pitching," the manager said.

Dusty's right. The Reds are a popular sleeper pick for a reason. An organization on the rise, Cincinnati -- yes, Cincinnati -- is home to one of the best young pitching staffs in baseball. Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez have already arrived. Aroldis Chapman is here. Travis Wood, Matt Maloney, Brad Boxberger and Mike Leake are on their way. But this year the most important young Red -- and, perhaps, one of the most important players in the N.L Central -- isn't the Cuban-born phenom or the fireballer they call Little Pedro. "Homer Bailey is going to be the difference-maker for the Reds," says a National League scout. "They've got a lot of pitching talent there now. But Bailey might be the most talented."

David DeWitt "Homer" Bailey, Jr. Remember him? First-round draft pick out of La Grange High School in Texas, can't-miss kid with the golden arm, Savior of Cincinnati. Cocky and brash gunslinger with the electric 98-mph heater and the wicked 12-6 curve. In the summer of 2007, around the time Bailey was promoted from the minors and about to make his much ballyhooed-debut at the Great American Ballpark, there was a big billboard that was up for a few weeks along an Ohio Interstate. On it was an image of Bailey throwing a baseball with the words HE HAS COME. "I'm screwed," Bailey thought to himself as he drove past it one afternoon.

He was screwed. He wilted under the bright lights; he had an erratic rookie season in 2007, and he was a disaster -- 0-6 with a 7.93 ERA -- in 2008. The Cincy media started to turn on him; suddenly the brash gunsliner was just an arrogant s.o.b. He sulked, he brooded. "There was so much pressure on him," says Reds pitcher Aaron Harang. "To come up as a 21-year-old and have so much expected of you. There's no doubt it got to him."

But here he is now, still only 23, relaxed and humbled and poised for a breakout season. Last Saturday morning, a crowd of reporters zeroed in on Chapman's locker after the 21-year-old prospect threw his second bullpen. A few lockers down, Bailey, happily skating under the radar this spring, could only laugh at the Chapman circus. "It's not easy, what he's going through," he says.

Bailey wears cowboy boots, goes boar hunting, drives an F-150 diesel pickup truck, and enjoys reading Stephen Ambrose history books, sometimes at his locker. Late last summer, as the Reds stumbled to another losing season, Bailey quietly showed he also can be one of baseball's elite pitchers. "Over the last six weeks of the season, he was one of the best pitchers in the National League," says Jocketty. Believe it: Bailey was 6-1 with a major-league best 1.70 ERA in his nine starts after Aug. 23.

Last year, everything changed for Bailey when he asked Justin Lehr, his teammate at Triple-A Louisville, to show him how to throw a split-finger pitch. One afternoon before a game in May, Lehr taught him the grip (to move his index finger on the seam and his middle finger just off it) and Bailey soon started throwing it. "I still remember the first time he let one loose," says Triple-A Louisville manager Rick Sweet, who managed Bailey for three seasons. "I was like, 'What was that? Holy smoke!' It came out of nowhere." With his new weapon, Bailey was lights out to start the year in Louisville. "Game after game, he was the most dominant I'd ever seen him," says Sweet about Bailey's summer in Louisville, where he posted a 2.71 ERA and struck out 86 hitters over 89 2/3 innings.

This was the Homer Bailey that everyone expected to see three years ago. This was the La Grange legend that had a 41-4 record, a 0.98 ERA and a preposterous 536 strikeouts in 298 innings over his high school career. This is the pitcher that Cincinnati, looking for its first winning season since 2000 and its first postseason appearance since 1995, needs at the top of its rotation. "We're counting on a great season from him," says Harang. "He's changed his attitude and his approach to the game."

This past winter Bailey worked out in Austin, Tex., alongside Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday and tennis star Andy Roddick. But the offseason was memorable for other reasons: in October, a string snapped on his hunting bow, slicing his hand. (Seven stitches were required.) In December, he dropped an 84-pound weight on his left hand.

It was almost a disastrous winter, but now looking back, Bailey laughs. It's spring now, and a big season lies ahead. There are no billboards. There's no pressure. "He's finally comfortable," says Reds infielder Paul Janish says, "No more speed bumps."

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