By the second, the arbitration clock inches closer to midnight.
On January 14th, the Reds and baseball’s 29 other franchises will, at last, be forced to decide on how to proceed with their arbitration-eligible players. Most will receive an incremental raise, a one-year deal, a pat on the back that doesn’t break the bank. The rare few will proceed to hearings, where that price point is negotiated.
And then there are the Homer Baileys of baseball. The ones with one year left on their contracts. The ones with track records of success. The ones that force their franchise to face a choice: lock him or lose him?
The Reds have been quiet this winter. But with Bailey, at some point, this time, they’ll be forced to make a loud statement.
Lock him, or maybe, lose him.
It’s fitting that this offseason, in the end, belongs to Homer Bailey. For it’s an offseason in which the Reds have yet to collect a hit. It’s been so quiet in the Cincinnati front office that we don’t even know if there have been swings and misses. But with every opportunity, every promising free agent or trade candidate that goes up, the Reds put their hands down. They let other teams become the story.
By January 14th, though, the Reds must speak. Faced with a question of dollars and sense, they must decide if a young pitcher is worth the investment of a long-term deal. It’s a worthwhile debate.
So here are five reasons they should lock him in:
- Value Shopping
Reds GM Walk Jocketty recently appeared on the MLB Network and gave a wee bit of insight into the Bailey negotiations. “He would probably be the one guy that’s going to be the most difficult [to sign] because of how well he’s done,” Jocketty said in his appearance on Hot Stove.
“Young pitchers are getting quite a lot.”
Jocketty is right about that. Pitchers on the open market (and some being locked up early, a la Clayton Kershaw) are taking in boatloads of cash. Despite a slowed starting pitcher market, those who have signed thus far are commanding annual salaries of $10 million and above, which nearly doubles what the Reds paid Bailey last year. Numbers for pitchers like Kershaw and Justin Verlander make that look like Save-A-Lot, Aisle Five.
And though it’s hard to get a grip on what Bailey’s agents might be asking for, something tells me it isn’t astronomical. He isn’t exactly a Scott Boras client, and he remains, despite his success, the third pitcher in the Cincinnati rotation. But say he asks for somewhere between $10-$15 million per year. Sounds like a lot of money, right? Perhaps money better spent elsewhere?
Three factors indicate that Homer Bailey, at that price, would be an incredible value for the Cincinnati Reds. One, he’s only entering his age-28 season, with a recent history of durability. Two, he is an above average pitcher, having amassed an ERA+ of 112 and 110 in the last two seasons (meaning he was 12% and 10% above average). And third, Bailey has proven to be much more valuable than the average replacement player, garnering a WAR of 3.2 last season, and 2.5 the year before.
Now compare that resume against this year’s crop of free agent starters (ages indicate how old they’ll be this season):
- Scott Feldman (signed 3 yr/$30M w/ Astros). 2013: 105 ERA+, 0.7 WAR | 2012: 86 ERA+, 0.9 WAR | Age: 31
- Scott Kazmir (signed 2 yr/$22M w/A’s). 2013: 93 ERA+, 1.1 WAR | 2011*: 89 ERA+, 1.3 WAR | Age: 30
- Tim Hudson (signed 2 yr/$23M w/ Giants). 2013: 110 ERA+, 1.0 WAR | 2012: 97 ERA+, 1.6 WAR | Age: 38
- Ricky Nolasco (signed 4 yr/$49M w/ Twins). 2013: 101 ERA+, 1.0 WAR | 2012: 91 ERA+, 1.8 WAR | Age: 31
- Ervin Santana (soon to be richer than above). 2013: 127 ERA+, 2.9 WAR | 2012: 74 ERA+, -1.3 WAR | Age: 31
- Ubaldo Jimenez (soon to be even richer). 2013: 114 ERA+, 2.7 WAR | 2012: 72 ERA+, -0.6 WAR | Age: 30
- HOMER BAILEY (made a bit over $5M last year). 2013: 110 ERA+, 3.2 WAR | 2012: 112 ERA +, 2.5 WAR | Age: 28
Notice a theme? All of those pitchers garnered average annual salaries that rose above $10 million. Yet Bailey is younger, more consistently valuable, and more consistently above league average. Who would you rather pay?
If the Reds and Walt Jocketty are truly hoping to maximize their dollars spent, Bailey represents a worthwhile investment.
2. Not a Lucky Star
Two styles of stars populate this space we call baseball.
The first is the fading, the shooting, star. From nowhere, it seems, they arrive, as if granting the wish of a struggling franchise. They buck their historic trends. They take the league by storm. They ascend into the stories that made Sports Illustrated millions. Then, just as quickly, they fade. Because, sometimes, players don’t suddenly become great. They become lucky.
The second star settles into the space, and it stays there. For years, it never moves. It’s steady, just continuing to slowly increase its brightness, eventually the shining star, but still familiar. These are the stars that become posters or Fatheads, heroes that stay long enough to earn a few creases on the bedroom wall.
And by all indications, Homer Bailey isn’t going anywhere.
Often, a blip of pitcher success can be attributed to good luck on what’s called BABIP (or batting average on balls in play). League average hovers around .300, and aside from rare cases, major departures from that average signal something unsustainable. A decent pitcher might luck into a BABIP of .260 for a season and look like a star; then regression hits hard.
Homer Bailey has received no such luck. His BABIP has consistently remained at just under .300 these past two seasons, indicating that his improvement and success can’t be attributed to balls that once found gaps, and instead, found gloves.
No, Bailey has improved in tangible ways, pointing to a star (or at least, a good pitcher) still on the rise. From 2012 to 2013, even, he continued to hone his game into something greater. His strikeout rate increased to the point where he was striking out nearly one-fourth of all batters he faced, a figure almost 8% above league average. And despite pitching in Great American Ballpark, his home-run rate decreased to a number below league average.
Combined, that’s a winning formula for pitching in the hitter-friendly confines of Cincinnati. Which is why the front office should do their best to keep him there.
3. He keeps going, and going, and going…
Durability. It isn’t a word, four years ago, that would fall in the same stratosphere as Homer Bailey. A once promising career had faltered due to an arm that couldn’t keep up with his fastball. And all seemed lost.
Somewhere in the last two seasons, Bailey found himself.
The same man that once drew concern over his injury history has now compiled two straight seasons of 200+ innings pitched, an asset undervalued by measured stats. In an age where the complete game is a rarity, Bailey goes the distance at a rate that ranks him in the top five these last two years.
And he’s not just eating innings. He’s devouring them. Bailey can’t be accused of simply resting the bullpen; his long starts are also quality starts. According to Baseball-Reference, he has secured a “quality start” in 63.5% of games started in the last two seasons. League average is 51%.
Once upon a time, when the Reds handed Homer Bailey the ball, the bullpen needed to sit on the edge of their seats, ready to replace his inflamed elbow and inflamed personality at a moment’s notice. Now, they can rest easy.
Homer can go the distance.
And he deserves a contract that does the same.
4. What are the Reds other options?
Small market teams can’t always afford to pay extra for production. Walt Jocketty learned from years in St. Louis that homegrown talent that can rise through the pipeline is a more efficient way to replenish the rotation. Throwing dollars at grown men won’t always translate to throwing fastballs.
But in the case of Homer Bailey, who replaces his production? If he leaves, who waits in the wings?
You saw those free-agent salaries. If Jocketty isn’t willing to pony up for Bailey, he certainly won’t empty the safe for Ubaldo Jimenez. And something tells me that the Reds won’t be frontrunners for Masahiro Tanaka‘s services once he leaves Japan; it costs $20 million just to speak with him.
And even if Jocketty operates with the spirit of St. Louis, he can’t steal their farm system.
The answer doesn’t reside in Cincinnati. Any touted pitching prospects are at least a couple years from cracking the Big Show, and bringing back Bronson Arroyo would represent a significant downgrade, and worse, he’d represent not a step forward, but a pause button, a dreaded, “let’s wait and see” that won’t fly in Cincinnati. Not this time.
The cupboard is bare. That much is obvious. And if the Reds choose to play hardball with Bailey, they might just find that they can’t find a suitable replacement to throw one.
5. An intangible price.
Throw out the numbers.
Throw out the price tags, the wins above replacement, the stats. As much as it pains me to say it, they matter little in a moment like this. The Reds need to realize that choosing to save money would come with an intangible price –one far greater than an annual salary.
At the end of the day, baseball remains, dare I say it, a game of memories and moments. As much as we remember the iconic numbers (Maris’s 61, Clemente’s 3000), a franchise is rarely defined by them. A franchise, and the fans that follow them, succeeds on the merits of moments.
The Cardinals fan base doesn’t keep coming back because their front office wins on the cheap. They came back because, year after year, their franchise delivered moments. The same can be said for the Braves, the Yankees, the Red Sox. They all do business differently, but one thing is the same: they’ve woven a constant tapestry of moments. Their fans have tangible memories to hold onto. And they keep coming back, they keep paying, to feel that high once more.
When you strip a team of that history too soon, something happens. You can’t measure it, but the fans lose something, despite a payroll’s gain. And that should matter, even in this era of stats.
But Bailey delivered the moments. Two of them. Two no-hitters that any witnessing Reds fan will remember for the rest of their lives. In a city like Cincinnati, that has had few moments to hang onto since that 1990 World Series, that’s special. That’s rare.
Losing that might cost more than any contract.
It’s sentimental, I know. But so is baseball. And if Homer raised a fanbase so high, how can we put dollar signs on what it might mean to bring them so low, to send that face elsewhere, to choose business over baseball?
January 14th is coming.
It’s the bottom of the ninth. Two outs. A dream on the line.
Homer Bailey has been here, before.
And just like those other two moments, the Reds need to keep him in.