KC Royals: Short season could hurt Bubba, Phillips

(Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images) /

A short season might help some KC Royals. But it could hurt the career prospects of two outfielders.

Much is said and written about the competition between Bubba Starling and Brett Phillips for a spot in the KC Royals’ outfield, a contest that began last season but, owing to each player’s poor hitting, remained unresolved when the campaign ended and baseball’s winter arrived. The two were expected to resume the battle in spring training.

Until, that is, the offseason outfield shakeup that reduced the prize to a reserve job. The Royals gave center field, the prime focus of the Starling-Phillips competition, to Whit Merrifield and moved Hunter Dozier, displaced from third base by the Maikel Franco signing, to right field. Alex Gordon‘s return closed the starting left field job.

Suddenly, Starling and Phillips have only backup/bench roles to pursue. The stakes for each are high–they’re both out of minor league options–and the recast competition may not be as interesting as it could have been absent the winter changes.

And now, the certainty of a pandemic-shortened season adds new challenges for Starling and Phillips. Any baseball played in 2020 will, by all accounts, consist of 80-82 regular season games, probably good for these players in the short, but not necessarily the long, term.

A short season will require more players, especially considering the strong likelihood that more doubleheaders and fewer off days will be necessary to squeeze a meaningful number of games into the time available. Players will require more rest and time off than usual–rosters are expected to expand to at least 29 players and recent speculation pegs the limit at 50, an option all but guaranteeing a “split team” approach involving the designation of daily rosters identifying game-eligible personnel and an inactive taxi-type squad.

Starling and Phillips will make the team in any case.

Both were probably locks to make the 26-man active roster; again, neither has an option and the KC Royals need to determine once and for all whether either, or both, have Kansas City futures. Increasing the roster to 29 virtually assures them of breaking spring training 2.0 with the club, and allowing 50 players certainly secures their spots.

But therein lies the rub, the double-edged sword of making the active roster as reserve players for an abbreviated season. No matter how manager Mike Matheny planned to utilize Starling and Phillips in a 162-game campaign, a short season unavoidably reduces their opportunities to prove themselves. Starts will be spotty, probably limited to off days designed to preserve the edges of Gordon, Merrifield and Dozier, whose collective opportunities to “rest” by DH-ing will decrease to maximize Jorge Soler‘s at-bats. (Don’t expect Soler to get much time off).

Cutting the season in half also eliminates at least 50% of the chances Starling and Phillips would have had to make their respective cases to remain with the KC Royals past this season. Fewer games means fewer playing opportunities, fewer at-bats and fewer chances to make good.

So it is that a short season significantly impacts the futures of both Starling and Phillips. For them, there is no time to waste, no time to let up. Every game takes on added importance; each new appearance means more than those that came before.

Add to all this the looming presence of talented outfield prospects Nick Heath, Kyle Isbel and Khalil Lee, all of whom are closing in on major league readiness.

Simply put, Starling must do far better than last season’s rookie .215/.255/.317 slash and 50 OPS+. Phillips can’t be anywhere near his .138/.247/.262 and 35 OPS+ or 2018’s .188/.252/.313 and 54 with the Royals and .182/.250/.273 and 41 with Milwaukee.

Neither had much time going into 2020. Now they’ll have less.

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The KC Royals will play a season cut roughly in half if baseball returns this year. Bubba Starling and Brett Phillips, players with much at stake, need to take full advantage of every chance they get.