This KC Royals spring camp might be the last for two former club prospects.
There is something between the KC Royals and Bubba Starling that nothing, so far, can break. Not a disappointing, underachieving seven-season minor league career, or two consecutive mediocre shots at the majors, have soured the Royals on their former first round draft pick.
The same seems to be true of Eric Skoglund, an apparently talented but non-achieving lefthanded pitcher with pedestrian minor league, and poor big league, numbers. He’s lost 11 of 13 Kansas City decisions but, like Starling, keeps coming back.
At best, the professional survival of Starling and Skoglund tends to defy baseball logic. At worst, it reflects bad front office decisions.
The painful Starling-Skoglund story continues later this month when both report to Kansas City’s spring training camp, presently set to open for pitchers and catchers February 17. Neither former prospect is on the club’s 40-man roster, but they’ll be in Arizona after receiving two of the club’s almost 30 non-roster player invitations.
It may be the last Royals camp for both. They’re living on the margin now, with little room for ordinary performances, and none for mediocrity.
Starling is, of course, the most notable of the two. The Royals talked him out of a promising college football career at Nebraska after making him their first round pick in 2011, and the $7.5 million bonus they paid him to turn away from the Cornhuskers likely secured his financial future. His first year in the minors—10 home runs and .275/.371/.485 in Rookie ball—reinforced the notion he was something special, but he then enjoyed only occasional success at the plate until a .310 average in 72 games at Triple A Omaha propelled him to Kansas City in July 2019.
Starling’s been in the majors since but has only a .204/.246/.298 line and five homers to show for the effort; the Royals non-tendered him in December. Entirely foreseeable at the time, though, was his eventual re-signing several days later.
While injuries partially explain Starling’s minor league struggles, and he spent two weeks on the IL last season, they can’t be blamed for his entire dismal body of bat work in Kansas City. The sad fact may be that he can’t, and won’t, hit big league pitching.
Eric Skoglund’s KC Royals career has been less impressive than Starling’s
Drafted by the club in the third round of the 2014 draft, Skoglund came to the KC Royals with less promise than Starling and hasn’t improved his position. His best minor league season was, and remains, the 6-3 he turned in at High A Wilmington in 2015; he’s 14-23 otherwise in the minors, and 2-11 in parts of three major league campaigns.
Injuries to the rotation forced the Royals to call Skoglund up in early 2017 and he surprised by beating Justin Verlander and Detroit in his first start, a five strikeout, one walk, two-hit 6.1 inning stint featuring a stretch in which he put down 14 Tigers in a row. His only other major league victory came in 2018 and was even better—he allowed only a run and two hits, and struck out nine, in seven innings against the White Sox. But he finished 1-6 with a 5.14 ERA.
An 80-game PED suspension limited Skoglund to six games in 2019. He did nothing with them, going 0-3, 9.00. Simply put, he’s done little with his big league chances.
So it is that Starling and Skoglund will be under the proverbial microscope in Arizona. This will be Starling’s eighth spring camp (invitations are sometimes a perk, sometimes well-earned, for top prospects); he owes his Opening Day roster spot last season in no small part to a .378/.439/.865 Cactus League line (including five homers in 15 games) before COVID-19 shut down spring operations. A similar effort this February and March may be required to keep him in the hunt.
Skoglund, on the other hand, hasn’t the spring training experience of Starling, nor is it likely the club has the depth of patience with him as it does with Starling. He must pitch well every time out.
Barring injury, it’s hard to imagine either player surviving a bad spring. Even a so-so camp could end their Kansas City careers. Starling and Skoglund, however, seem to somehow land on their feet no matter what the circumstance or the depth of their disappointing work. But if they don’t improve quickly, the Royals must finally make the decision they’ve so far found so difficult to make.
The KC Royals have invited Bubba Starling and Eric Skoglund to spring training. The invitations may be the last they get.