Homer's odyssey for consistency continues

Homer's odyssey for consistency continues

Homer's odyssey for consistency continues
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Only 24 years old, Homer Bailey has already amassed 56 starts over parts of the last four seasons. Still missing on the resume for the Reds pitcher that was once one of the top prospects in baseball is a consistent track record.

Even if the jury is still out on what will become of Bailey's long-term future, one of the votes that matters most is firmly in his corner.

"You've got to look at what you think he might do and the glimpses of excellence that we've all seen," Reds manager Dusty Baker said on Wednesday. "That's what I'm kind of expecting. I think Homer is going to be a big winner in the big leagues. He's going to be big in this equation. He's going to be one of the guys we count and depend on for a long period of time. With his body type, attitude, sometimes his stubbornness, all these qualities to me add up to him possibly being a big winner."

Bailey has yet to get beyond 20 big league starts in a season for Cincinnati. In 2009, he started the year in Triple-A Louisville, and he lost a big chunk of last season with a shoulder injury.

In 19 starts totaling 109 innings, Bailey was 4-3 with a 4.46 ERA. He went on the disabled list May 24 with right shoulder inflammation -- an injury that originally seemed to be minor -- and it took almost three months to return.

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"That's kind of the rule of being a starter. Once you get hurt, you have to build all the way back up," Bailey said after his first spring start during Wednesday's 7-6 win over the White Sox. "That in itself took about a month. Luckily, it wasn't too, too serious and we were able to come back fairly quickly."

Over his final 10 starts, Bailey was mostly sharp, going 4-1 with a 3.55 ERA, 59 strikeouts and only 19 walks.

Bailey also finished 2009 strong when he was 6-1 with a 1.70 ERA over his final nine starts that season.

Now it's time for Bailey to prove he can give the Reds 30-plus starts over a season and be dependable every fifth day.

"He's a season away -- from start to finish -- a season away. That's the big thing," Reds pitching coach Bryan Price said. "We universally feel he's ready to pitch here and contribute here. But we still want to see a start-to-finish season, not something abbreviated by starting the season in the Minor Leagues or a stint on the disabled list.

"Getting established in the league and maintaining that is probably the hardest thing to do. However, we're at the point now where we're pretty heavy with starting pitching. We need all five of our guys to perform at a level that will take us where we want to go. We all think Homer is the type of a guy that can give us that type of consistency."

Bailey could have an advantage this spring as he tries to secure one of the final two rotation spots. Unlike fellow contenders Mike Leake and Travis Wood, Bailey is out of Minor League options. It's hard to envision a scenario where he doesn't make it as the No. 4 starter.

If Bailey somehow didn't make the rotation, the club's only two choices would be to put him in the bullpen or to trade him. There is seemingly no desire to deal him as his potential remains very strong.

In a very solid first start of spring against the White Sox, Bailey pitched two scoreless innings with only Juan Pierre's leadoff bunt-single allowed.

"I think every year, you're trying to improve and you never feel above anything," Bailey said. "As long as you're out there taking care of your job. I don't think you ever stop learning, especially with a bunch of young guys we have. We're always trying to improve, always trying to get better."

Bailey still has strong repertoire at his disposal that can make him lethal, including a fastball that can reach 96-97 mph and improved secondary pitches.

It's taken a little longer for Bailey's maturity to catch up with the physical quality of his stuff. He made his most significant strides after the 2008 season once he became more dedicated to his offseason workout program and the following year, getting more comfortable in the clubhouse.

Bailey showed Price more signs of growth last season as well, even with his trademark obstinacy still occasionally showing.

"He has to know and have confidence in what he needs to do to be successful and win games," Price said. "However, you have to be able to defer to your catchers and the game plan at times to steer you in the right direction. There were times last year where his preparation for his opponent wasn't as good as it could be. By the time we ended the year, it was very good. He was taking notes on hitters and watching his opponent on video. He was very engaged in the pitcher-catcher meetings. It's a huge thing. You have to get past the bravado of thinking your stuff is going to win games for you. Especially as a starter, you have to be able to use your head, too. I thought he made great strides in that direction last year."

Always an optimist, Baker will continue to believe that Bailey can grow into the pitcher everyone expected when the right-hander was the latest "can't miss prospect."

"Who knows what Homer is going to do. But you have to give him the opportunity to find out," Baker said. "There were some great pitchers I've seen that started out a whole lot worse than Homer. He's got a chance to be an ace, I think."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Mark My Word, and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.