Aug 7, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Homer Bailey (34) releases a pitch against the Cleveland Indians in the first inning at Great American Ball Park. Mandatory Credit: David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports
There has been a growing trend in Major League Baseball over the last decade or so for teams to sign their “young” players to long-term contracts before they reach free agency, and those moves have generally been positive from a PR standpoint, at least initially. This practice is fraught with pitfalls, though, and one of the largest is that teams feel the need to strike earlier and make a bigger splash with each passing year. The Cincinnati Reds have drunk deeply from this well, and the contract that they inked with pitcher Homer Bailey last off-season stands as a measuring stick for this year’s free agent pitchers, and potential trade candidates, and it stands to cost the Reds more than just the money they owe to their soon-to-be 29-year-old righthander.
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When the Reds signed Bailey to his extension, the veteran was entering his age-28 season having just completed two straight years of 200+ innings pitched, the first two such campaigns of his career. In 2012, he put up 2.5 Wins Above Replacement and bumped that up to 3.2 in 2013, so the Reds were riding the high of improved performance and the promise of things to come.
The new contract covers Bailey for ages 28-33, and leaves the Reds on the hook for either a $25-million salary or a $5-million buyout in 2020, when Bailey will be 34. For $105-million, the small-market Reds set the bar for slightly above league-average pitchers rolling into their 30s, and the impact is already being felt.
Last summer, Jeff Samardzija reportedly rejected multiple extension offers from the Chicago Cubs and ended up being traded to the Oakland A’s. The scuttlebutt was that Samardzija didn’t much care for the five-year, $85-million neighborhood when he considered what Bailey was making on the Riverfront.
Now, Samardzija seems a sure bet to be traded before Spring Training since the A’s are unlikely to pony up that kind of money to keep him, and he’ll be looking for something north of Bailey’s deal when he hits the market next winter.
And if Samardzija is worth, say $110 million, aren’t Jon Lester and Max Scherzer worth that much more by comparison?
The impact of the Bailey deal will come full circle when the Reds eventually try to trade one of their middle-of-the-rotation guys. Teams know that Mat Latos or Mike Leake will be looking for “Homer Bailey Money” when they hit free agency next season, so they’re unlikely to give up big-time prospects for one year of a guy they probably can’t afford to sign long-term.
Even guys like Alfredo Simon will likely see trickle-down benefits of the Bailey deal. Simon will be 34 years old next season and has only one year of what might be considered even decent rotation success under his belt, but he was more durable and better than Bailey in 2014. If Simon can cobble together another decent year as a starter, he’ll be able to point to his Reds teammate’s $18 million salary in 2016 as a talking point for his own free agency.
All of the big-money expectations for free agent starting pitchers makes cheaper, controllable options all the more attractive for teams looking to bolster their rotations. Back-end guys like the trio of New York Mets who are available on the trade market and who come with contractual certainty for their new teams could make it harder for the Reds to move their free-agents-to-be.
The Cincinnati Reds have painted themselves into a corner with loyalty to their homegrown talents, and now the team may just have to thrive or flounder based on what those guys can do as they head into their 30s.