The offseason signing of a free agent third baseman shook the KC Royals’ outfield. In its aftermath, two outfielders running short on time will compete for a backup spot, a test that may spell the end of one player’s KC career.
As the New Year drew near, Bubba Starling and Brett Phillips probably weren’t thinking about Maikel Franco. Instead, their baseball thoughts were more likely fixed on their approaching battle for a regular job in the KC Royals’ outfield–while smart money had Whit Merrifield grabbing most of the right field time, center field was wide open after Phillips and Starling both failed to win the job in 2019, and left fielder Alex Gordon was quietly considering retirement.
That all changed on December 27, however, when the Royals signed Franco to play third base, a move that uprooted Hunter Dozier and moved him straight to right field and, consequently, Merrifield to center. Phillips and Starling were left to fight for one of two things–the regular left field job if Gordon decided to retire, or a backup role if he decided to stay.
Gordon’s recent decision to return for another season narrows the Starling-Phillips contest to one for a backup job. Gordon’s still stellar defense (he won another Gold Glove in 2019), his improvement at the plate last season, his history with the franchise, and the $4 million he’ll get this season mean he’s the presumptive everyday left fielder–he may take a few more days off, but the club didn’t give him $4 million to be a reserve.
Starling and Phillips, then, will compete for what may be the only backup outfield spot available. The Royals obviously need one outfield reserve, but carrying more than that reduces their roster flexibility; and if another backup is needed, others have outfield experience, including Jorge Soler, Ryan O’Hearn and Ryan McBroom. The roster is too crowded to devote space to more than one exclusive reserve outfielder.
Further complicating the issue is that Starling and Phillips are both out of minor league options, meaning neither can be demoted to AAA Omaha–or any other destination in the Royals’ system–without first being offered to the other 29 major league clubs and clearing waivers. Whoever wins the backup job will likely send the other packing unless the latter clears waivers.
For the Royals, the choice between Starling and Phillips is anything but clear. Starling made his much anticipated big league debut last season after toiling through eight mostly lackluster and injury-plagued minor league seasons; a fast start soon slowed and he finished with four home runs, 12 RBI’s and an unsightly .215/.255/.317 slash and dismal 50 OPS+ in 56 games. Phillips also made a poor case for himself, slashing .138/.247/.262 with a 35 OPS+ in 30 games. A 2018 split between Milwaukee and KC wasn’t much better: .187/.252/.306 and 52 OPS+.
Both are decent defenders and age isn’t really a factor–Phillips will turn 26 this season and Starling 28–but Starling may be the favorite. The club’s investment in him is deep (he’s been with the organization since 2012), he has the athleticism edge, was a slightly better hitter than Phillips last season, and Royals’ fans have long yearned for him, an area native and local hero of sorts for turning down a football scholarship at Nebraska to sign with the Royals, to patrol the Kauffman Stadium outfield.
If neither hits, the KC Royals may have to look elsewhere. Top internal candidates include Nick Heath, a player close to being ready for the majors, and Khalil Lee, whose debut is more realistic late in the season or in 2021. The club could turn to other teams, but shouldn’t with Heath and Lee in the system.
The KC Royals begin Spring Training with questions in search of answers. By Opening Day, the club should know who its fifth starter, first baseman and backup outfielder will be.