The KC Royals didn’t offer Bubba Starling a contract Wednesday, but that doesn’t mean his Kansas City days are over.
The roller coaster career of Bubba Starling took another dip Wednesday when the KC Royals declined to offer him a contract for the 2021 season. In the short term, Starling is a free agent with the right to negotiate and sign with any other team; in the long run, he’s a good bet to end up back with Kansas City.
Why? External interest in Starling will probably be low because becoming a free agent doesn’t change his status as a “sure thing” prospect who hasn’t panned out, and the Royals have steadfastly stood by him throughout his disappointing days with the organization. Not tendering him shouldn’t be interpreted as the club slamming the door on Starling on his way out.
First there’s the matter of what Starling has to offer other big league teams which, at this point, isn’t much. His defensive skills aren’t in dispute—he has good range, good speed, and a good glove—so some clubs might consider him on that basis alone.
But the ability to play the outfield well isn’t rare, and teams won’t be eager to spend $570,500, the minimum major league salary for next season, on the one-dimensional player Starling has become. It’s an unfortunate fact that he hasn’t been able to hit since debuting with the KC Royals two seasons ago.
And Starling isn’t providing any reason for potential suitors to believe he’ll ever find big league pitchers to his liking. A hot bat at Triple A Omaha in 2019 (.310/.358/.448 in 72 games) caused Kansas City to call him up for the first time in July 2019, but that bat quickly cooled and he finished the season with a paltry .215/.255/.317 line. His 2020 performance was worse—a .169/.219/.237 line in 35 games, combined with a two-year mark of .204/.246/.298, will be hard to sell. Unless they detect a curable flaw KC doesn’t see, other clubs won’t rush to Starling.
Those offensive numbers alone more than justify the Royals’ decision to cut ties with Starling, but non-tender decisions have a way of not meaning what they appear to mean. Teams non-tender for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is they no longer see value in a particular player; on the other hand, non-tendering is often a means to the end of freeing up 40-man roster space to facilitate and accommodate offseason additions. That’s what apparently happened to Starling in late 2018, when KC non-tendered but re-signed him less than three weeks later.
There is specific precedent, then, for Starling to return to Kansas City. Also persuasive to the case that he’ll be back is the Royals’ almost unwavering commitment to their 2011 first round draft pick. Other than the 2018 non-tender, which in not too much hindsight was more of a temporary offseason roster move made with the fairly transparent underlying motive of opening 40-man slots to create maneuverability, the club supported Starling through his pre-big league hitting woes and the injuries that periodically impeded his minor league progression.
And they could have, but didn’t, replace him with any of their outfield prospects this season when he proved his poor 2019 season at the plate wasn’t an outlier.
No, the KC Royals seem to see something in Starling that may transcend the natural desire to realize a return on their original $7.5 million investment. All things considered, what that something might be, and whether it will bear fruit, remains to be seen. There clearly exists a solid Royals-Starling bond.
And if past is prologue, and recent talk is predictive, that bond may be only temporarily broken. Take, for example, the fact, as reported earlier today by mlb.com KC beat writer Jeffrey Flanagan, that during a recent discussion about new Royal outfielder Michael A. Taylor and other roster considerations, manager Mike Matheny included Starling in a list of apparent outfield candidates for 2021; it’s reasonable to assume that, at the time he spoke with Flanagan, Matheny knew, or suspected, that the club wasn’t going to tender Starling but a return was likely.
So, a lot points to a coming reunion between Starling and the club that signed him. If it happens (there are certainly reasons why it shouldn’t), let’s hope things are different this time around.
The KC Royals’ split with outfielder Bubba Starling may not last long. Don’t be shocked if he ends up back with the team.