The KC Royals made a rather surprising move to promote struggling NW Arkansas outfielder Bubba Starling to AAA Omaha Sunday. Could the front office be positioning him for a trade?
The 23-year-old Bubba Starling has suffered through a tough season at NW Arkansas. After what looked like a breakthrough season at the plate in 2015, Starling has hit .185/.251/.322 with 15 doubles, 5 home runs, and 81 strikeouts in 255 plate appearances. That’s a big step back from this 2015 season in which he dominated at High A Wilmington slashing .386/.471/.614, followed it up with a respectable .254/.318/.426 at NW Arkansas, and .274/.330/.440 in the Arizona Fall League.
"“It may look a little unconventional with his numbers,” Picollo said. “We feel like he’s playing better than his average. But it’s sometimes hard to convince a player of that.”"
Piccolo said the KC Royals front office has been discussing the move for weeks, and put it in action when outfielder Reymond Fuentes injured his hamstring earlier in the week. The personnel department considers the move a “reset” that will help convince Starling that he’s playing better than his numbers indicate. Piccolo told Dodd:
"“Triple-A is a different challenge,” Picollo said. “But at the same time, there’s not a whole lot that separates the two levels.”"
Looking at Bubba Starling’s numbers, we do see he’s been catching some hard luck with his .257 BABIP (Batting Average, Balls In Play: a stat that typically hovers around .300 for most hitters facing professional competition). Starling is a guy that you’d expect to have a BABIP over .300 given that he has the speed to leg out infield hits.
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Yet, his strikeout rate is still crazy high at 31.8%. Not all of those problems can be explained away by a slow start and injury.
The strange thing about all of this is that the KC Royals are promoting a guy based, in part, on the hope that elevating him will boost his confidence. If Bubba Starling’s self-belief is so fragile that his AA numbers are getting him down, why are the Kansas City Royals putting him in a position where they clearly hope he can earn a September call-up to the big club?
The first takeaway is that all prospects are not created equal. Clearly, Bubba Starling is a favorite son in that he gets the benefit of the doubt from the KC Royals front office. Funny how players like Johnny Giavotella, Kila Ka’aihue, or Jose Martinez never got as many chances as Starling. Part of that, of course, comes down to scouting. But I also wonder if such belief can also be a self-fulfilling prophesy.
In short, if the organization showing belief in Starling can inspire success at a higher level, why can’t clear lack of faith from the Kansas City Royals personnel department cause a player to slump?
There’s also a little voice whispering to me that the KC Royals could be positioning Starling to use him as a bargaining chip as the trade deadline approaches. If the promotion can jolt a hot streak from Starling, the Kansas City Royals could get good trade value from him. Given that they dealt Cody Reed and Sean Manaea last year to fuel a title run, the front office has shown they are willing to deal top prospects to support the championship aspirations of the current group in Kansas City.
[Update: Bubba Starling went 2-3 with a double and home run in his AAA Omaha debut Sunday. He also drew a walk against the Memphis Redbirds in his first plate appearance in game 2 of a double header]
Why not move Starling?
To me, it’s pretty clear that the best case scenario for Starling is probably Lorenzo Cain with—perhaps—more pop. His hit tool has been slow to develop, and I doubt that magically changes when he gets to the major leagues. If Starling ever fulfills his promise, it’s likely not going to come until his late 20’s or early 30’s.
That’s sounds like a good player for the KC Royals to move when they need help to win a title today.