It’s been almost nine years since the KC Royals convinced a young multi-sport talent to forego college football for professional baseball. This season may be his last chance, so he needs to perform well.
Welcome back to the Kings of Kauffman 2020 KC Royals Preseason Player Previews. Our writers are breaking down 30 players; we’ll analyze how each fared last season, discuss projections for 2020 and offer commentary about both. Up for today is outfielder Bubba Starling.
The Summer of 2011 was one of decision for 18-year old Bubba Starling, a multi-sport prep star with a national athletic reputation. The recent graduate of Gardner-Edgerton High in Kansas, just down the road from the side-by-side venues of Kansas City’s Royals and Chiefs, had to choose between baseball and football, the two sports for which he was best known. He had already signed a scholarship to ply his star quarterback talents at Nebraska, but the Huskers had competition for his services–the KC Royals wanted him, too. And badly.
In June, just two months before Nebraska’s fall camp would open, the Royals owned the fourth overall pick in baseball’s Amateur Draft and used it to select Starling. Not Anthony Rendon, Francisco Lindor, Javier Baez, George Springer, Brandon Nimmo, Sonny Gray or Kolten Wong, all of whom were available when the Royals went on the clock.
In the face of such talent, picking Starling was a true risk. He had a sure thing going at Nebraska–the chance to mold himself for the NFL while playing for championships in one of college football’s greatest and most decorated programs and in some of the game’s most storied venues. The Royals, on the other hand, offered a more difficult, less colorful road to glory, one paved by long minor league toil that might lead some distant day to the big leagues.
So the stakes were high for the Royals. Whiffing on Starling would waste their high first round pick, an unforgivable and potentially disastrous result for an organization struggling to escape the deep muck of consistent losing and to recapture the winning ways of the past. And a mid-August deadline to sign their pick, a product of the strict rules regulating the draft, was approaching, adding more pressure to an already tense situation.
The Royals, however, could offer Starling 7.5 million things the Cornhuskers couldn’t–Dollars. Whether Starling resolved the baseball-or-football question on the basis of which game he preferred, on instantly becoming a millionaire, or both, he chose baseball and signed in August for $7.5 million. It was, at the time, the second biggest draft deal ever.
Starling’s 53-game pro debut the next season tended to reflect his promise and potential. He hit 10 home runs with 33 RBIs and a .275 average. Unfortunately, and with the eyes of the KC Royals’ organization and fans constantly on him, he wouldn’t eclipse that .275 until 2018 and has hit more homers just twice in seven subsequent professional campaigns–13 in A-ball in 2013 and 12 across High A and AA in 2015. His 63 RBIs and 22 steals in 2013 are his best; he’s slugged over .600 once; and his OBP has exceeded .400 only once.
Injuries have unfortunately plagued Starling’s progress, among them several oblique strains and a freak finger injury sustained as he emerged from bed one morning. Injury robbed him of much of his 2018 season; although they still liked him, the Royals assumed other clubs didn’t like him as much and left him unprotected in the Rule 5 draft late that year; he went undrafted and KC re-signed him.
And then (just like that, they say) Starling seemed to start coming into his own in 2019. He was hot, hitting .310 with an .806 OPS (and seven homers and 38 RBIs) through 72 games at AAA Omaha when the Royals finally summoned him to Kansas City for his major league debut. The promise of his good start soon diminished and Starling finished the season with a distressing .215/.255/.317 slash and 50 OPS+; those numbers, and just four homers and 12 RBIs in 56 games, revived talk that time was no longer on Starling’s side.
2020 Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs projections. Two offseason moves set the KC Royals’ outfield for 2020–the signing of Maikel Franco to play third base forced Hunter Dozier to right field and Whit Merrifield to center, and Alex Gordon re-signed and will start in left. That leaves Starling and Brett Phillips to split time as they did in 2019, but this time they’ll fight, at least initially, for a backup spot, a circumstance that perhaps explains why Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs both project numbers for Starling consistent with a sub-par, part-time player.
Baseball-Reference predicts Starling will get 299 plate appearances and slash .234/.283/.385 with nine homers and 29 RBIs; FanGraphs projects 112 plate appearances with two homers, 11 RBIs and a .234/.283/.360 slash.
How will Starling actually perform? The Royals didn’t spend a first round draft pick to make Starling a reserve outfielder but, barring injury to Gordon, Merrifield or Dozier, that’s what he’ll be. He may well have the edge over Phillips for a backup job; if he lands it, he’ll have to better his 2019 performance to keep it. Even without the benefit of everyday work, that shouldn’t be difficult for Starling–it won’t take much to improve a .215 average and 50 OPS+. A .250 average with 10-12 home runs is reasonable to expect, but a 100 or better OPS+ may be too much to ask.
The promise of Bubba Starling remains unfulfilled; time is running out on him ever being a star for the KC Royals. A regular role as a serviceable reserve is possible, but he’ll have to be better in 2020 than he was in 2019.