KC Royals: Make us believe again, Bubba Starling

(Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)
(Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images) /

Can KC Royals outfielder Bubba Starling’s recapture his once-bright future?

Believing in Bubba Starling used to be easy. It was the obvious, natural and well-justified thing to do 10 years ago when the KC Royals grabbed him in the first round of the 2011 draft. A superb multi-sport star gifted with a perfectly unforgettable name, he was known to everyone as a sure thing. His potential was so great that the Royals gave him a reported $7.5 million dollars to bid farewell to the Nebraska Cornhuskers with whom he was set to soon start a career as quarterback. He grew up near Kansas City, so he was an easy-to-root-for hometown guy.

That $7.5 million was the second most ever given to a baseball draftee. It isn’t anymore, of course, and in hindsight may seem too much to have paid for what the Royals received. Starling finally made it to the major leagues two seasons ago, which save for the nagging injuries that slowed his progress, and inconsistent hitting, would have been a long time for a hot prospect to arrive.

But the hard truth is Starling really hasn’t arrived. Instead, he’s struggled at the plate almost from big league day one and, sadly, may never figure out major league pitchers, who have to date proven too much and too strong for him. His two season .204 average, and the .169 he struggled to attain last season, prove that. No more evidence is required to show his bat isn’t what the KC Royals thought it would be.

Starling, however, appeared last spring to be ready to hit. He followed his 2019 exhibition season’s .344/.432/.625 slash with .378/.439/.865 and clubbed five homers in 15 games. But spring training ended at its mid-point, before he could prove whether he could keep up the pace. Starling provided the answer when the season opened: his .169/.219/237 in 35 games represented an emphatic “No.”

This spring, he didn’t get a hit in his lone at-bat in the club’s exhibition opener, but sparked belief the next day when he went a perfect 3-for-3 with a double and an RBI.

The hope was fleeting. Starling is 0-for-9 since, and struck out looking twice in Kansas City’s victory over the Padres Sunday, first with the bases loaded and no one out in the fifth, then with one on and one out in the seventh. That happens to major leaguers from time to time, but the optics are so much more pronounced when struggling players do it.

The two Sunday strikeouts gave Starling an alarming five in 13 at-bats, and he’s now slashing .231/.231/.308. The sample size is small, but consistent with what his hitting seems to have become. This simply isn’t what Bubba Starling needs to do.

From the day he saw his first professional pitch, untold numbers counted themselves among Starling’s fans and followed him with a fervor, making sure each day to check the previous night’s box scores to track his progress. They knew he’d make the majors because he was too good not to, and they wanted to be ready for the debut.

Now, Bubba Starling’s remaining baseball days are probably few, at least with the KC Royals. The return last week of Jarrod Dyson likely seals Starling’s fate with the only organization he’s ever known—Dyson signed a major league contract, which means he’s the clear-cut fourth outfielder choice behind Andrew Benintendi, Michael A. Taylor and Whit Merrifield. Taylor’s hitting could end up being too light, but the chances of the Royals carrying Starling in case that happens aren’t good.

Unless he explodes at the plate and sustains a white hot bat, Starling is probably headed for a DFA. If that happens, clearing waivers is his only remaining hope of staying with the Kansas City organization—because he’s out of minor league options, he can’t be sent down unless no other club claims him. Some team may give him a fresh start; the more likely scenario is that he goes unclaimed.

No one wants to see Starling fail. Everyone wants to see the player that potential suggested he’d be, everyone wants to see him go on a long roster-making hot streak, and everyone wants him to enjoy the good big league career they believed he’d have.

Make us believe again, Bubba Starling. Please.

Next. Is Bobby Witt Jr. close enough?. dark

The Royals’ Cactus League season ends in three weeks. It’s make or break time for Bubba Starling.