A starting pitcher was one of eight veteran free agents the Kansas City Royals signed before Opening Day 2019. He had a decent season and is a free agent again. Should the club add him to the rotation?
The Kansas City Royals went on a bargain-basement free-agent shopping spree before Opening Day 2019. The curious signings characteristic of General Manager Dayton Moore’s approach to free agency continued: critics panned the choices of most of the eight veteran major leaguers Moore pursued and signed. The criticism was not without justification as most were disappointments and all were released, traded, sold or waived before September.
Pitcher Brad Boxberger posted a 1-3 record and 5.40 ERA in 29 games and was released in July. Chris Owings, as inexplicable a signing as any of Moore’s previous choices, hit .133 in 40 games and was released in June; Lucas Duda, signed as a free agent for the second straight year and as mysterious a choice as Owings, hit .171 in 39 games and was released in late July, presumably because the Royals couldn’t find a deal for him at the trade deadline.
But not all of Moore’s signings were disappointments. Billy Hamilton acquired to hold down center field until Bubba Starling and Brett Phillips were deemed worthy of call-ups, hit .268 and stole 18 bases before being crowded out and claimed off waivers by the Braves and ending up in the playoffs. Fan-favorite Terrance Gore, back with the Royals as a pinch-running specialist, hit a respectable .275 with 13 stolen bases; perhaps recognizing that the 2019 Royals didn’t require a baserunning specialist, the club sold Gore to the Yankees in July.
The signing of catcher Martin Maldonado, unplanned but made necessary by Salvador Perez‘ injury that ended his season before it began, turned out well–Maldonado was an adequate replacement before ending up with Houston (after a brief trade stop with the Cubs) and the World Series. And pitchers Jake Diekman and Homer Bailey were serviceable and found their way to Oakland in separate July trades and ended up in the Wild Card game.
Of KC’s 2019 free agent signings, only Diekman and Bailey seem plausible as candidates for Royal reunions. As discussed previously in this space, Diekman is capable of pitching frequently in low leverage situations and might be worth a look for the short term; Bailey, however, warrants more serious consideration and could help round out the KC rotation until Brady Singer and other highly touted Royals prospects are ready for Kauffman Stadium.
Bailey became a mainstay in Cincinnati’s rotation before the Reds signed him to a six-year $105 million contract before the 2014 season. The Reds clearly saw future value in Bailey–in seven pre-deal seasons, he accumulated a 49-45 record, a pedestrian 4.25 ERA and a cumulative 5.2 WAR.
But injuries victimized Bailey and the Reds didn’t realize the value that drove his big contract–in the five seasons he pitched after signing the deal, he averaged fewer than six starts and went 18-32, including a horrific 1-14 in 20 2018 starts. The Reds traded him to the Dodgers in December but LA released him the next day.
Although Bailey wasn’t the pitcher the Reds believed justified a big contract and still had a guaranteed year for $23 million left on the deal, the Royals, who had to pay him only the major league minimum, signed him and he won a spot in their unstable rotation.
The former seventh overall pick in the 2004 amateur draft performed adequately for a team destined to lose over 100 games for the second straight season–in 13 starts and 90 innings, Bailey went 7-6, struck out 81 (8.1 SO9), had a positive (1.0) WAR and averaged five-innings per start.
Oakland also saw something in Bailey and traded for him in July. He helped the A’s to the Wild Card, going 6-3 and averaging over 5.5 innings per start; he struck out 68 in 73.1 innings (8.3 SO9), displayed good control (1.8 BB9) and had a 3.65 FIP. His 13-9 overall record between the Royals and A’s suggests Bailey may be regaining form.
Whether the A’s take a run at Bailey remains to be seen; Bailey’s big contract and the 2019 season expired at the same time, making him more attractive to pitching hungry teams like the Royals. Instability still plagues KC’s rotation–Danny Duffy, Brad Keller, Jakob Junis and Mike Montgomery will likely occupy four spots in that rotation, but only Duffy had a winning record (7-6) and Keller and Junis each lost 14 games.
The fifth spot in the rotation is up for grabs with no current member of the staff its heir apparent. This will be Bailey’s age-34 season, but his encouraging 2019 and time with Kansas City could attract the club’s attention. If 2019 is any indication, Bailey may be free of the nagging injuries that hampered him after signing his big Reds’ contract. He made 31 starts for KC and Oakland, had a cumulative 8.1 SO9 and walked just under three batters per nine innings. He could bring a veteran presence to a young Royals team as it finds its way under new manager Mike Matheny.
It is age–Bailey is a 13-year veteran who will turn 34 in May–that may give the Royals pause. Duffy and Montgomery will both be 31 in 2020; Junis will be 28, Keller 25. As the fifth man in the rotation, Bailey would be the oldest, but younger hot prospects like Singer aren’t likely to see Kauffman Stadium until at least late 2020, so Bailey probably won’t impede the youth movement if signed. And the club isn’t likely to pursue (much less sign) any expensive top of the line starters.
Homer Bailey could be a viable fifth starter for the Kansas City Royals as they await the arrival of promising young hurlers like Brady Singer. Bailey’s 2019 season proves he can still pitch and be a serviceable back-end rotation piece; he offers veteran presence as the club moves into the Matheny era. Although he shouldn’t be a long-term contract candidate, Bailey could be a valuable one season addition…and a good first half might make him attractive at the trade deadline.