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Bubba's star is finally exploding

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Bubba Starling, the Royals' first-round pick in the 2011 draft, might make some waves sooner rather than later.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Derek Starling was born in August of 1992 in Gardner, Kansas, a town in Johnson County 37.6 miles away from Kauffman Stadium. Somewhere along the line, presumably after wrestling a bear or saving an old lady's cat from a tree as a wee child, Starling adopted the nickname 'Bubba.' In June of 2011, the Kansas City Royals used the fifth overall pick in the draft, their first pick of many, to draft Bubba Starling. Bubba turned down a scholarship to the University of Nebraska, nabbing a $7.5 million signing bonus and becoming a teenage millionaire before ever stepping onto a baseball diamond as a professional.

It is now July of 2015. After a bumpy road, Bubba is finally going supernova. His future has yet to be written into the stars, true, but he has pulled himself out of the bottomless prospect black hole and is closely orbiting the Major League club--surprisingly close. Bubba has willed himself into the outfield picture of 2016 and perhaps even 2015. But before I look at why I think this is the case, let's take a look back to his status as a prospect.

At Gardner Edgerton High School, Bubba was a multi-sport athlete, playing baseball, football, and basketball at a high level. As such, Bubba never focused his talent on one sport. With Kansas also being Kansas, Bubba also didn't play against intense, year-round competition due to the cold, unlike Californians (Mike Moustakas) or Floridans (Eric Hosmer). However, people still loved him as a prospect.

From Baseball America's Top 200 draft prospects for the 2011 draft:

Starling is the best athlete in the 2011 draft. As a pitcher, he'd be a potential first-round pick as a 6-foot-5, 195-pound righthander with a fastball that touches 95 mph. He's also a gifted quarterback who earned a scholarship from Nebraska after leading Gardner-Edgerton to the Kansas 5-A state semifinals as a senior...Despite his ability on the mound and on the gridiron, his future is as a five-tool center fielder who resembles Drew Stubbs...His speed is as impressive as his power, making him a basestealing threat and giving him plenty of range in center field.

From Keith Law:

Starling is the best athlete, bar none, in this year's draft, and one of the best in any recent draft. If you want five tools, this is the place to shop. Starling has explosive bat speed and above-average raw power that will become plus in time; right now, he tends to drift forward at the plate, robbing himself of a little power because his weight is on his front foot too early. He's a plus-plus runner who led all players at last year's Area Code Games in 60 times, and it translates to easy range in center.

From Frankie Piliere at scout.com:

The term five tool player gets thrown around quite a bit. Bubba Starling has the potential to be in that exclusive club. He's not a five tool player yet, as his hit tool needs refining at the professional level. But, his raw power, speed, defensive abilities and arm all grade out near the top of the 20-80 scale. Patience will be required with his development but the upside is as good as it gets.

To summarize: scouts saw Bubba as a potential five-tool outfielder with immense ceiling, but one with enough doubts to keep him from being a sure thing. His hitting had never truly been challenged, and as such there were doubts about his hit tool and his ability to tap into his power tool.

Still, Bubba was (and is) one of those freak athletes. You don't get named the best pure athlete among hundreds of supremely talented individuals in an entire draft otherwise. You don't become a three-sport star, gathering a $7.5 million signing bonus after a full-ride scholarship to a NCAA Division I football team and making the Kansas All-State basketball team without pure talent.

Bubba was drafted on June 6, 2011. The Kansas City Royals were not primarily interested in Bubba. Their 2009 first round pick, Aaron Crow, had made the bullpen that year (Crow's All-Star year!) and the team saw him as a long-term reliever. In addition, Kansas City traded their ace, Zack Greinke, away after the 2010 season for a promising young outfielder and a slick-fielding shortstop. The Royals sought pitching talent, and there was a quartet of power pitchers at the top of the draft.

Baseball America's 2011 Top 10 draft prospects:

  1. Anthony Rendon
  2. Dylan Bundy
  3. Gerrit Cole
  4. Danny Hultzen
  5. Trevor Bauer
  6. Bubba Starling
  7. Francisco Lindor
  8. Taylor Jungmann
  9. Archie Bradley
  10. Taylor Guerrieri

Dayton Moore and the Royals were interested in all four of the top pitchers--Cole and Bauer from UCLA, Hultzen from Virginia, and Bundy from the alma mater of Mrs. LaMar, Owasso High School in Oklahoma. All four were at the top of the Royals' draft board, and all it would take would be Pittsburgh, Seattle, Arizona, or Baltimore to pick up the promising infielder Rendon for one of the pitchers to land with Kansas City.

Of course, all four came off the board immediately.

With the fifth pick, Moore was more or less forced to go with the local Bubba. He fit what interested Moore as a prospect--enough tools to fill up an Ace Hardware store--and the Royals couldn't afford to fumble what could be another Albert Pujols situation. So pick him they did.

Bubba made his debut with the Burlington Royals on June 28, 2012, one year after his draft day. Agent Scott Boras and old rules under the old Collective Bargaining Agreement allowed Bubba to hold out for the highest signing bonus possible, which is what Boras advised him to do. Bubba's 2012 was pretty good, as he put together a .275/.371/.485 line, with 10 home runs in only 53 games.

But Bubba struggled mightily in 2013 and 2014. Bubba's swing drifted aimlessly like Sandra Bulloch's character in Gravity, sometimes finding purchase and consistency but generally being exposed to the harsh environment of professional baseball. Remember, Bubba was supposed to be a slow mover, an unpolished rock of potential.

In 2013, Bubba spent the entire season with the A ball Lexington Legends. Cracks in his swing were beginning to show, and while he put up a decent line of .241/.329/.398, that's not exactly what you want out of a fifth-overall pick as a 20 year-old. He struck out almost 26% of the time, down some from the 30% K rate he posted in 2012 but still high.

Bubba's 2014 was a disaster. The Royals decided to challenge him and promote him to the A+ Wilmington Blue Rocks, but Bubba was overmatched. His line of .218/.304/.338 was 16% below average. Bubba was 21. Bubba struck out at a 27% clip. Bubba, to many, was a lost cause. Too old, too raw. Set the self-destruct, get in the escape pod. The Starling Express was over.

Except...it wasn't. It never was. What I and others did not see was that all it would take for a prospect with Bubba's tools would be one year and his status as a top prospect could be resuscitated.

In the 11th pick of the same 2011 draft, Houston drafted George Springer. Springer, another athletic, toolsy outfielder but with a more refined hitting tool, performed poorly in his 2011 debut but hit .316/.398/.557 in A+ ball at the age of 22. Springer got to AA and, as many prospects do, hit a wall. Springer hit .219/.288/.342 in his AA stint. Now, I am not a Houston fan, but I can imagine there was frustration. In 2013, Springer was a 23 year old who just completed an exceedingly poor stint in AA. And then something clicked. Springer's lowest OPS for the rest of his minor league career at either AA or AAA would be .978, and he debuted at the age of 24 in 2014 (against the Royals, no less).

Bubba is 22, playing in both A+ and AA ball, just as Springer. Like Springer, Bubba destroyed A+ ball, hitting .386/.471/.614. Unlike Springer, Bubba is handling his first stint at AA, where he is hitting .268/332/.437--good for 14% above league average, and is posting the lowest strikeout rate of his career at 22.7%. After some struggles after a hamstring injury, Bubba has crushed the ball this month with a .948 OPS.

Springer and Starling are similar players--toolsy outfielders that have both walked and struck out at above average rates in the minors, exhibiting good power at the cost of average. Though Bubba is unlikely to be as good offensively as Springer, he probably makes up for it with better defense and baserunning (best athlete in the draft, etc.). Furthermore, there is no guarantee that Bubba will make it as a regular, or even at all. Prospects are, at best, vaguely educated throws of the dart at a hazy dartboard. However, the illustration is that, even for athletic outfielders, struggles can and do happen. And all it takes is one year for the sun to shine again on Prospect Land.

The Mike Trouts, Bryce Harpers, Eric Hosmers, Carlos Correas, and Salvador Perezes of the world, the 19-21 year old debuts, are the exception, not the rule. Often, you get Alex Gordon, Kris Bryant, Danny Duffy, George Springer--23 or 24 year olds who nonetheless can still succeed at the Major League level.

If Bubba keeps raking at AA, he might join the club, perhaps even this year. With Alex Gordon gone for weeks, Alex Rios being his usual terrible Alex Rios self, and expanded rosters in September, Bubba might just make it to Kansas City sooner rather than later, with his knee injury expected to only be a minor setback. The Royals will have a dilemma if he continues to rake in the next few weeks before the trade deadline. If Bubba is hitting .280/.350/.480 in two weeks do you call him up for good?

A lot can happen in a few months. Even though he missed an entire month of baseball, Bubba has single-handedly turned himself from an afterthought into a highly intriguing possibility, if not this year then possibly next year. If the Royals decide Bubba is The Guy for right field next year, they might have some more money to resign Alex Gordon. I, for one, would love to see a Gordon/Cain/Bubba outfield. It's up to Bubba for that to be a reality. So far, so good, at least in 2015.