The KC Royals traded Brett Phillips Thursday, ending the competition he had with Bubba Starling for a steady backup role. But the deal doesn’t mean Starling’s job is secure.
The battle between Bubba Starling and Brett Phillips for a regular reserve role in the KC Royals’ outfield is over, ended by Thursday’s trade of Phillips to Tampa Bay for minor league infielder Lucius Fox.
The conclusion to the competition that began last August was one worked by a business transaction, not the ultimate merits of the players involved. Had the merits ultimately mattered, the final decision, one that needed to be made, might not have been that easy.
Starling’s history with the Royals was the longest of the two outfielders—he spurned a promising football career at the University of Nebraska to sign with the club after it selected him in the first round of the 2011 amateur draft. He signed too late to launch his pro career that summer, but he debuted the next year with a 10-homer, .275 rookie season befitting of his bonus and potential.
But circumstances have a way of impeding potential; sporadic play and injuries prevented Starling’s performance from equaling that potential, and it wasn’t until July 2019 that Starling, riding the coattails of a .310 average at Triple A Omaha, got the call to Kansas City.
Phillips, a good and speedy defender with an excellent arm, had already been there, having arrived the season before with Jorge Lopez as the Royals’ return from Milwaukee in the Mike Moustakas trade. As a rookie, he’d hit a promising .276 in 37 games with the Brewers in 2017, a number that, combined with his speed and defense, made him attractive to the KC Royals.
But he was below Mendoza at .182 when Milwaukee shipped him to Kansas City, then hit .188 in 36 games with the Royals. He spent much of 2019 in the minors, then rejoined the major league club in mid-August.
Starling had been called up six weeks before and hit .276 in July, but was batting just .108 in August (.211 for the season) when Phillips returned.
Their battle for the primary outfield backup job began almost immediately; speculation soon arose that the competition could become one for the everyday left field slot if Alex Gordon retired after the season.
But 2019 resolved nothing. Starling finished with four homers, 12 RBIs and an unimpressive .215/.255/.317 slash in 56 games; Phillips’ short season ended with two homers, six RBIs and a .138/.247/.262 slash.
Baseball’s winter defined the precise scope of the Phillips-Starling competition—the KC Royals’ trade for third baseman Maikel Franco displaced Hunter Dozier to right field, the club declared Whit Merrifield its center fielder, and Gordon signed on for another year in left, leaving Starling and Phillips to fight for the main reserve role.
Things changed on the surface, of course, when baseball resumed this July with expanded rosters that secured jobs for Starling and Phillips. Their battle, however, never really ended. Both entered the season out of options, meaning neither could be sent out without first clearing waivers, and a talented younger outfielder or two would, sooner or later, need room in Kansas City. Something had to give.
Still, nothing was resolved.
Phillips, so popular with fans that they filled social media with pleas to play him more, was hitting .226 with a homer and two RBIs in 18 games when he headed for Tampa Bay; Starling, who spent a few days on the Injured List, was at .174 with three RBIs and hadn’t homered in his 15 games. Phillips’ cumulative, 84-game KC slash is .178/.256/.308 with a 52 OPS+; Starling has a .211/.252/.306 71-game slash with a 47 OPS+. Major league careers are unsustainable with either set of numbers.
So it was, with neither player distinguishing himself from the other, that their battle came to an end only because the Royals traded Phillips. What does his departure mean for Starling?
Starling is a can’t miss player who has, so far, missed. His poor offensive stats speak for themselves and won’t allow him to stay in the majors much longer. The Royals assigned Fox to their alternate site, so another outfielder already on the 40-man roster will probably replace Phillips. (As of Thursday night, the club hadn’t made a move and doesn’t have to until before tonight’s game with the White Sox).
But even if Kansas City fills the vacant spot with a pitcher or infielder, Starling’s battle for a permanent reserve role isn’t over. Again, there are those haunting numbers, and there’s also Ryan McBroom, the versatile first baseman-outfielder who hit .293 in 23 games after being acquired late last season from the Yankees. McBroom had a good spring and is having an excellent regular season with two pinch-hit home runs (to go with two others) and a .302/.339/.585 slash and 145 OPS+ in 22 games.
No, the Phillips trade offers Bubba Starling no guarantees, no breathing room, no reprieve from the battle. Nothing has changed—he remains unproven, a case of deep potential not yet realized. McBroom’s value to the club is now higher than Starling’s; others are almost ready.
Simply put, Starling’s time is now more precious than ever and may be running out. If his fortunes at the plate don’t soon change, he may find himself on the outside looking in.
Brett Phillips may be gone, but Bubba Starling’s fight for a steady major league job with the KC Royals continues.