When a 97-mph fastball isn't quite enough
Bats want Bailey to hone raw talent
By C.L. Brown
Homer Bailey, the most ballyhooed pitching prospect to come through the Cincinnati Reds organization in some time, has all the tools to become a great pitcher.
Now, Louisville Bats manager Rick Sweet said, all the 20-year-old Texan has to learn is how to pitch.
This is the same Bailey that the Reds named their 2006 Minor League Player of the Year after he stymied hitters with stops in Single-A Sarasota and Double-A Chattanooga.
The same 6-foot-4, 205-pounder Baseball America named the Reds' top prospect for the third year in a row.
The same Bailey drafted seventh overall in the 2004 first-year player draft with a $2.3 million signing bonus -- the second largest in franchise history.
He needs to learn how to pitch?
"(Media and fans) are the only ones who blow this up," Sweet said. "You haven't heard anyone in our organization say anything other than he needs to work on his changeup or breaking ball."
Bailey has generated a following before his first pitch in Louisville, said Greg Galiette, the Bats' assistant general manager. Some groups have planned their outings around Bailey's appearances, he said.
"In my 23 years, I've never seen one pitcher have that kind of effect," Galiette said.
The right-hander will debut for the Bats at home Sunday against Toledo. Just keep in mind Bailey is just 20 -- the youngest player on the Bats' roster by three years.
"Everybody knows his talent level is greater than (Triple-A)," Bats third baseman Earl Snyder said. "He's a guy who, once he figures it out, and he's so close now, he's going to stick (in the big leagues), and he's going to stick for a long time."
Snyder speaks with certainty after seeing Bailey's fastball, which can reach 97 miles per hour, in his final exhibition start.
Snyder also knows Bailey comes to Louisville after mowing down Southern League opposition with a 7-1 record and a 1.59 ERA. But the International League will prove a greater challenge, Sweet said.
"He's dominated people now in A ball and last year in Double-A. He did a great job," Sweet said. "But when you start jumping Triple-A and the majors, you're jumping into men now. Now the game changes. When he makes that adjustment then he's going to be ready for the big leagues."
Many believed Bailey could make the Reds' roster in spring training, but his learning curve showed. In his first exhibition start, the Pittsburgh Pirates touched him for three runs in two innings. In his final start, the Indianapolis Indians totaled six runs on seven hits in 41/3 innings.
"I knew coming into spring training my shot was extremely slim; also to go with that, I didn't throw particularly well," Bailey said. "But the only expectations are the ones I hold for myself."
Terry Reynolds, the Reds' director of player development, was confident Bailey was headed in the right direction.
"The thing about Homer particularly is he just needs to learn to trust his stuff," Reynolds said. "It's good enough that he doesn't have to make perfect pitches every time … once his secondary stuff -- changeup, curveball -- becomes more consistent, that's when the light will really come on for him."
Bailey never figured he'd be playing in front of the bright lights when he stood, tennis ball in hand, on a softball-field mound in La Grange, Texas.
After the grown-ups were done for the night, Bailey and the group of kids who tagged along with their parents took over the playing field.
"Sometimes it would just be me and my best friend," Bailey recalled. "We just threw, there was no stretching or warming up, we just played."
As Bailey began playing in leagues of his own, his father helped him hone his skills.
David Bailey pitched at the University of Houston and passed along a mental edge that Homer Bailey said he keeps no matter who he faces. It's why he says his spring-training struggles won't carry over into the season.
"I always say before every game, 'I have one thing on my mind and that's a shutout,' " Bailey said. "I'm going to give up runs, I know I am, but every batter that comes up to bat I'm thinking, 'You're going to get out.' You can't convince me otherwise."
The Reds' front office is comfortable giving Bailey all the time he needs to prepare for the big leagues. Bailey could be with the Bats for the entire year or join the major league team or get sent back down to Chattanooga, Reynolds said. The Reds were not going to rush him into big-league action, Reynolds said.
"I mean he's 20, we're not locked in to having him," Reynolds said. "We want to see him have success, whatever level that has to happen."