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Oakland A’s acquire pitcher Homer Bailey from Royals

A new starter to reinforce a thin rotation

Photo by Reed Hoffmann/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s acquired starting pitcher Homer Bailey from the Kansas City Royals on Sunday, the team announced. The deal was first reported by insider Jeff Passan. The A’s sent minor league infielder Kevin Merrell to the Royals. Oakland will eventually need to make a 25-man roster move to clear room for their new acquisition, but there was already an open spot for him on the 40-man roster.

This has been a bounce-back season for Bailey. The right-hander threw just 231 total innings between 2015-18 due to a series of arm injuries, but he’s made 18 starts for Kansas City this year. His results have only been mediocre, but he’s at least stayed healthy.

Bailey, 2019: 4.80 ERA, 90 ip, 81 Ks, 38 BB, 12 HR, 4.47 FIP

While those stats don’t jump off the page, his FIP is exactly the MLB average for starters, and his 97 ERA+ is basically average too. Over his last six starts, three of which were quality efforts, he’s got a 2.83 ERA in 35 innings, albeit those outings mostly came against weak competition.

Bailey spent the first 12 seasons of his career with the Cincinnati Reds, for whom he threw two no-hitters and earned a $105 million contract entering 2014. However, Tommy John surgery shelved him in the second and third years of that deal, and a subsequent operation to remove bone spurs from the same elbow cost him half of 2017. He returned to make 20 starts last summer but was ineffective, with a 6.09 ERA and 5.55 FIP.

Bailey is still in the final year of that massive contract, but it’s irrelevant as far as the A’s are concerned. He was acquired by the Dodgers as a salary dump last winter and then immediately released, meaning Los Angeles is on the hook for the rest of the money. He signed with the Royals on a minor league contract and Oakland will only need to pay a pro-rated portion of the league minimum, totaling around $250,000 according to Passan.

Bailey, 2010-14: 3.86 ERA, 803⅔ ip, 697 Ks, 224 BB, 91 HR, 3.77 FIP
Bailey, 2015-18: 6.25 ERA, 231⅔ ip, 172 Ks, 86 BB, 39 HR, 5.13 FIP

Through all of that, Bailey is still only 33 years old. He was drafted out of high school in 2004, with the No. 7 overall pick, and debuted in the bigs just after 21st birthday.

“He’s been pitching really well as of late,” said manager Bob Melvin, via Ben Ross of NBCS. “He’s beaten some good teams this year. Before he got hurt, obviously, he was an electric arm and it seems like he’s coming back to form at this point.”

In terms of stuff, Bailey’s fastball averages 93 mph and tops out at 97. That’s where his velocity has sat for most of his career, including his strong 2012 campaign, though he pumped it up a couple ticks in the two seasons before his TJS in 2013-14. This year he’s throwing his splitter more than ever before, around 27% of the time, up from the mid-teens the last couple years.

Bailey will start for the A’s on Wednesday against the Mariners, reports Ross. He joins a rotation that features the red-hot Mike Fiers, plus Brett Anderson, Chris Bassitt, and Daniel Mengden.

In exchange, Oakland gives up Merrell, whom they drafted No. 33 overall in 2017 in the Comp A round (post-1st round). Billed as a slappy speedster, Merrell hasn’t really gotten going in the pros. He posted a weak showing in High-A last year while battling injuries (72 wRC+), and then followed it up with an equally disappointing performance in Double-A this year (73 wRC+).

Merrell, 218 AA: .246/.292/.339, 73 wRC+, 2 HR, 5.7% BB, 21.1% Ks

The lefty hitter struggled to get on base, and even when he did reach he did no damage with his vaunted legs. He stole just 18 bases in 26 tries in 2018-19 combined, for an untenable 69% success rate. On defense he’s played mostly shortstop but he’s no guarantee to stick there, and his MLB Pipeline scouting report suggests a possible future as a utilityman.

Over at Baseball Trade Values, this rates as a nearly perfectly even swap. Bailey held a surplus value of 1.5, and Merrell 1.4.

Hot takes

This is a small deal, but a good one. The A’s clearly needed to add a starter, and they got a serviceable one for as close to free as possible. They didn’t add any salary, and they parted with just one struggling prospect from an area of great organizational strength.

There is no debating the fact that Oakland needed to bolster their rotation. Without Montas they were down to four reliable starters, and backups Tanner Anderson and Paul Blackburn had each been lit up in their brief MLB trials. Top prospect Jesus Luzardo was supposed to arrive in July but was shut down after straining his lat, and 2018 ace Sean Manaea has been knocked around in his minor league rehab while sitting just 88-90 mph on his velocity. Aaron Brooks is now on the Orioles after being DFA’d earlier this month.

The A’s needed someone and they needed them now, with the open rotation spot looming next week. They’ve pushed their way into playoff position with the second Wild Card, and this is the moment to double down on that chance of contention rather than playing it too safe with just the in-house candidates. Furthermore, July 31 is now a hard trade deadline and there’s no longer the chance to make further deals in August, so there’s no waiting around to see how Manaea progresses over the next few weeks and then swinging a late swap next month if he falters. Strike now or risk missing the chance to strike at all.

Of course, Bailey might seem like an underwhelming target at first glance, but there’s no denying he’s an upgrade in the fifth starter spot. He’s the very definition of average this year, with a long list of upside potential that includes his current hot streak and his past pedigree as a former star, all at an age that isn’t too advanced to reasonably have something left in the tank. His performance in Kansas City is markedly better than what Tanderson and Blackburn were doing in Triple-A, much less in the bigs. Bailey probably won’t suddenly become a star for Oakland, but you can do a looooot worse than average at the back of a rotation.

Meanwhile, the book isn’t yet closed on the 23-year-old Merrell, but Athletics Nation will have no problem giving him up in this trade. The A’s are loaded with middle infield prospects, to the extent that it’s tough to even fit them all in everyday lineups throughout the minors, and current shortstop Marcus Semien is a prime candidate for a contract extension anyway. I doubt Merrell would even have cracked the Community Prospect List Top 30 next winter, after placing just 23rd last winter and then posting another poor season at the plate.

Both teams come out looking good here. The rebuilding Royals turned a minor league free agent into a recent post-1st-round draft pick, and the A’s turned a possibly busted prospect into legitimate win-now help during a moment of contention.

For Oakland, this feels like a lite version of their trade for Fiers last summer, though Fiers was enjoying a much better bounce-back at the time and thus cost them a bit more prospect stock. But both pitchers are average-ish veteran starters with the ability to dominate on a given day, albeit Bailey’s two no-nos came all the way back in 2012 and ‘13. Fiers has a much better ERA this year and the edge in Statcast xwOBA, but Bailey has the better FIP.

Presumably this won’t be the A’s only trade this month, as there are lots of enticing bullpen candidates on the market and Oakland could use help in that area too. But the more I think about this deal, the more I love it, because I see it as a virtually free upgrade to an area of imminent need. You might be unenthused, but there’s simply nothing to dislike about it, and it doesn’t preclude them from any further moves that you might be hoping to see. Now go find this year’s version of Jeurys Familia to beef up the late-inning relief crew, and you’ll only need five innings at a time out of Bailey anyway.

And as a bonus, Homer joins a growing line of great A’s pitcher names, from Josh Outman to Grant Balfour, and of course Tyler Twoseamfastball (citation needed). Welcome, Homer!