The courtship ultimately proved mutual, but the season will determine whether it will be fruitful.
Thirty-two-year-old Homer Bailey approached the process of finding a new team pragmatically and unemotionally. The Royals were similarly deliberate and measured in their pursuit.
A 6-foot-4, 223-pound right-hander, Bailey signed a minor-league contract last week that came with an invitation to big-league spring training. He can opt out of his deal with the Royals by March 25. If things go well, however, the union could bolster the profile of both parties. The risk for each side seems to have been mitigated by circumstance, but that doesn’t mean the Royals and Bailey aren’t invested in each other.
After all, Bailey had the chance to pick an opportunity and a fit he felt was most conducive to him returning to the form of years past. The Royals have gambled on Bailey’s capability to stay healthy and provide stability and experience in a rotation lacking in both areas.
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“You’re looking for bounce-back guys,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “You’re looking for the next (Joe) Blanton, the next (Ryan) Madson, you know those guys. The J.D. Martinezes, that they gave up on them and then boom — look where he is. So yeah, you’re always looking for someone that’s going to help you win.”
Bailey, a Texas native, has muddled through injuries in recent years, and he began each of the 2015-17 seasons on the Cincinnati Reds’ disabled list.
In 2018, he started 20 games, including opening day. But also went on the disabled list from May 30 through June 24 with right knee inflammation. He finished the season with a 1-14 record and 6.09 ERA in 106 1/3 innings. He struck out 75 and walked 33.
“Everybody kind of has their little checkpoints, but when you put up a six (ERA), it’s not like I’m going to be wearing pinstripes anytime soon,” Bailey said of sorting out his potential landing spots. “That has to be a little bit realistic. It was the dialogue I had with their staff. I’m a big believer in that.”
A former first-round draft pick (seventh overall, 2004), Bailey has started 212 career games and posted a 67-77 record with a 4.56 ERA, a 1.38 WHIP and a 7.3 strikeouts per nine innings ratio. His resume includes a pair of no-hitters, one in 2012 against Pittsburgh and another in 2013 against San Francisco.
“Obviously, there’s a couple factors there for us,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. “One, he’s has success in the past. That is something that we have to take into strong consideration. Then you factor in the fact that he’s an experience-type pitcher. We need experience in our rotation. And financially it works. It’s very little risk with a lot of upside for us.”
The Los Angeles Dodgers, in a roundabout way, helped grease the skids this offseason for Bailey to end up with the Royals.
The Reds, the only baseball organization for which Bailey had played in his professional career, traded him to the Dodgers as part of a seven-player deal that sent outfielders Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp, as well as pitcher Alex Wood and catcher Kyle Farmer, to the Reds in December. That meant the Dodgers will pay the remaining $23 million owed Bailey from the six-year, $105 million contract he signed with the Reds in 2014.
Royals pitchers Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy, Brad Keller and Jakob Junis certainly figure prominently into the competition for rotation spots. But Duffy got hit around more last year than any year since his rookie season. And Kennedy battled injury for the second straight year.
Keller, Rule 5 pickup a year ago, must show he can duplicate last year’s impressive performance. Junis and Heath Fillmyer have both shown potential, but each has pitched in the majors for two years or less.
“The biggest thing was probably the communication between Dayton and (pitching coach) Cal (Eldred), having the conversations really struck to me very well,” Bailey said of choosing to sign with the Royals. “I just really felt like it was a place that they wanted me to be here.”
The Royals did their homework before Bailey hit the free-agent market. Special assistant to the general manager Tim Conroy watched Bailey pitch late in the season and pounded the table during a September scouting meeting. Senior director of professional scouting Gene Watson saw him pitch in a subsequent workout at the University of Oklahoma.
Despite Bailey’s age and injury history, the Royals evaluators saw his fastball ranging from 93 to 97 mph. After the Dodgers absorbed the remaining compensation on Bailey’s contract and MLB handed down an 80-game PED suspension to Royals pitcher Eric Skoglund, the Royals offered Bailey a chance to compete for a spot in their rotation.
Speaking on Friday morning, Moore stressed that he and his front office lieutenants take seriously the decision to bring in veteran free agents like Bailey because they feel those moves have been part of the reputation they’ve built throughout the league.
“We’re not a transactional organizational where we’re just running guys in and out,” Moore said. “We’re not running a tryout camp. This is the major leagues. People know that about us now. They know that if we say you’re going to get an opportunity, you’re going to get an opportunity with the Kansas City Royals. … We make commitments to players and it’s our word. It’s a commitment. You’re getting an opportunity to make this team.”
On top of that, Moore pointed to Bailey’s apparent desire to be part of the organization, his fit for Kauffman Stadium, the club’s focus on defense and the fact that Bailey may carry a bit of a chip on his shoulder.
From early discussions with Eldred, Bailey believes the Royals pitching coach may have a fresh perspective that will benefit him substantially.
“At the end of the year last year our scouts saw him really good, velocity back up, healthy, so we’ll come in with an open mind,” Yost said. “We know that this guy was that a guy that has thrown a couple no-hitters and been the number one pitcher for an organization for years and ran into some health issues and some struggles and (he’s) trying to battle back from that. He feels good now, so we’ll see where he is at. Simple as that.”