Plenty of heat in his forecast
Reds say hard-throwing Bailey can become long-awaited ace
BY JOHN FAY | ENQUIRER STAFF WRITER
SARASOTA, Fla. - No player is more key to the future of the Reds' franchise than Homer Bailey.
Bailey is only 19. But he has something no one else in the organization has: the potential to develop into a front-of-the-line No. 1 starter, a guy to snap losing streaks.
That's something the Reds haven't had since Jose Rijo was in his prime. Not coincidentally, that's the last time the club was any good over a sustained period.
Bailey, the No. 1 pick in the 2004 draft, has made a big impression here at his first big-league camp.
"He's going to be a good one," Reds Hall of Famer Tom Browning said. "It comes to him naturally. He can't be far away."
Can he be a No. 1 type?
"Oh, yeah, yeah," Browning said. "He's smart. He's big and strong.
"When he refines his three pitches - really when he's refined two of them - he's going to be a star."
Bailey, a 6-foot-4, 205-pound right-hander, has pitched in two games this spring and has thrown three shutout innings. He was shaky in the first outing, walking the first two hitters he faced. But he was better the second time out. He has struck out three and allowed one hit in the three innings. He also has shattered two bats.
Catcher Jason LaRue says Bailey's stuff is big-league right now.
"He's legit," LaRue said. "He's got three good pitches. It's exciting to see. You don't see many guys come along with his potential."
Bailey, from LaGrange, Texas, is not here to make the club. He knows that. He'll probably start the year at Single-A Sarasota, where the weather's suited to pitching in April, then get a bump to Double-A Chattanooga early in the season.
Bailey thinks the experience of big-league camp will help him.
"Just seeing the way these guys handle themselves," he said, "the way they carry themselves. The term is professional, and they live up to it."
Bailey had not been around those kinds of players. He pitched in only six games after signing in 2004.
So, last year was really his first professional season. He was 8-4 with a 4.43 ERA at Single-A Dayton last season. A closer look at the numbers reveals what kind of arm Bailey has. He struck out 125 and allowed 89 hits in 1032/3 innings.
His fastball tops out at 97. He threw as hard as 96 in his second outing of the spring.
LaRue doesn't carry a radar gun, but he knows Bailey throws harder than everyone in camp.
"I don't know what he throws (as far as speed)," LaRue said. "But he throws hard. And whatever he throws, it's effortless. He's got great mechanics. The ball just jumps out of his hand."
Chris Welsh, the Reds' television color analyst and a former big-league pitcher, sees the same thing: a hard fastball that comes out of Bailey's hand easy.
"I like him," Welsh said. "In fact, I talked to Joe Randa after he faced (Bailey for Pittsburgh). He was telling me his fastball gets on you in a hurry. Keep in mind that he's 19. He's a neophyte when it comes to pitching strategy and understanding. He has everything you want in a top prospect.
"He's the best prospect I've seen around here in a long time - maybe ever."
Most No. 1 pitchers have a superior fastball. That's what sets Bailey apart from all the other 19- and 20-year-olds in the Reds' system.
"The first thing you look at is his fastball," minor-league pitching coordinator Mack Jenkins said. "We haven't had a starter with a fastball like that in recent history."
Mario Soto, like Browning here as a guest instructor, had no idea who Bailey was when Soto got to camp.
"I didn't know he was a first-round pick," Soto said. "But when I saw him the first day, it caught my eye. Later on I found out he was a No. 1. He's got a good arm. Hopefully, two or three years from now he'll be a very big part of this team."
Like a lot of young pitchers, Bailey has trouble controlling his stuff at times. When he gets there, Browning thinks he'll be ready.
"He's got to harness some of that," he said.
To harness it, Browning said, Bailey might have to trade a bit of velocity for location.
"Those boys in the big leagues can hit a fastball down the middle," Browning said. "I'm not saying you can't throw it every now and then, but when they know it's coming, they hit it. Learn to command the strike zone. He's hungry enough that he wants to learn, he wants to get better. He's pretty sure of himself. But he handles it great."
Bailey has shown a willingness to learn from the Reds' minor-league staff.
"He's a professional," said minor-league field coordinator Tim Naehring. "He knows what he needs to do to get better. He's an educated guy. You can tell him to do A, B and C. Homer will do A, B and C, but he's going to ask you why.
"He really developed the other aspects of his game last year at Dayton, holding runners on, time to the plate."
Said Jenkins: "He wants to be good. He's not satisfied with just getting to the major leagues. He wants to be the man. His work ethic shows that."
Bailey realizes the great expectations that are on him. But he says he feels no undue pressure.
"The way I see it, I was a No. 1 pick almost two years ago," he said. "That's over and done with. I don't worry about that. I worry about my next outing and how I'm going to do this season."
Bailey, whose given named is David (Homer was his great-grandfather's name), has a devastating curveball to go with the fastball.
"He's a guy who has an above-average big-league fastball and an above-average big-league curveball at this point," Naehring said. "At this stage of the game, a lot of guys have one pitch that grades out above average for a major-league pitcher. To have two is outstanding."
Bailey is working on a change-up as a third pitch. If it and the command come around, the Reds will have a pitcher who could help turn around the franchise.
"The change-up is coming," Jenkins said. "As hard as he throws, it would really complement the fastball."
So what does Bailey think? Can he be a No. 1?
"I don't see any reason why not," he said.
There's that self-assuredness.
What will it take to get there?
"Keep learning. I've got a lot to learn," he said.
There's that willingness to work.
Add in the top-shelf arm, and the Reds have themselves a No. 1 starter - at least potentially.