A KC Royals outfielder struggles at the plate but could still make the roster.
The KC Royals didn’t have a Cactus League game to play Tuesday, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t work to do. The clock is ticking on the club’s roster—the number of players still in spring camp far exceeds the 26-man Opening Day limit—so it’s a good bet manager Mike Matheny, General Manager Dayton Moore, and the rest of the Royal brain trust spent time debating the pros and cons of players on the bubble.
With the 13-pitcher lid lifted for this season, expect the club to carry at least that number, if not one more, for the first few weeks. Two catchers will suffice. A good bat or two off the bench will be on the table, and Whit Merrifield’s versatility gives Matheny so many options that the Royals can risk getting by with just one extra outfielder.
But will they? Although recent free agent signee Jarrod Dyson will back up starting outfielders Andrew Benintendi, Michael A. Taylor and Merrifield, Matheny and Moore might be tempted to add a fifth player to the mix.
And it could be the usual unlikely suspect who’ll fill that slot. A certain kind of case can be made for Bubba Starling.
It won’t be his hitting, of course, that might land Starling a place in the Kansas City dugout. His struggles with big league pitching are the stuff roster cuts are made of: he hit .215 as a rookie in 2019, plunged to .169 last season, and is batting only .214 with 10 strikeouts in 29 PAs this spring. (To his credit, he does have two homers and seven RBIs).
Any decision to keep Starling will turn instead on the franchise’s curious willingness to tolerate his flawed bat. There are, though, a couple of things he might contribute.
The first is late game defense. Starling’s good glove leaves little to complain about, and he’s fast enough and capable enough to play Kauffman Stadium’s gaps effectively. And although he shares those valuable attributes with Dyson, who the club signed to a major league contract because he can still fly and adequately patrol an outfield, using Starling first late in games allows Matheny the luxury of saving the speedier and better-hitting Dyson for pinch running or pinch hitting at a more critical juncture.
Breaking camp with Starling also keeps young outfield prospects Kyle Isbel and Nick Heath in the minors or at the club’s alternate training site, where they can play every day and are guaranteed regular at-bats, instead of sitting on the bench in Kansas City. Better to have them seeing plenty of action than staling their bats unnecessarily.
Is there a better option for the Royals if they choose to utilize a fifth outfielder? Certainly, with Edward Olivares and Ryan McBroom (who’s played some outfield) coming immediately to mind. Both have minor league options left that Starling doesn’t (in fact, Olivares was recently optioned to Omaha); Kansas City must add Starling to the 40-man roster before putting him on the active roster, so if he makes the 26-man he’d have to clear waivers before the club could send him back to the minors. And Olivares and McBroom are better hitters accustomed to bench roles.
What the KC Royals ultimately choose to do with Starling, if that choice hasn’t already been made but not announced, will have much to do with what they continue to see in him that others may not. Their commitment to the multi-sport phenom they drafted in the first round of 2011’s draft has been clear from the beginning. Kansas City’s brass stood by him through the thick and thin of minor league injuries and his disappointing failures to meet expectations.
The better decision, of course, is to send Starling to Omaha for whatever chance he has remaining; as a non-roster player on a minor league deal, the Royals don’t have to get him through waivers before choosing that option. Or they could shop or release him.
But if past is prologue, Kansas City may choose to give him another big league shot. It wouldn’t be wise, but the club hasn’t always been logical when it comes to Starling.
The KC Royals might keep Bubba Starling. We’ll know soon.