It all seemed poetic at the time. When Bubba Starling was drafted by the Kansas City Royals as the 5th pick overall in the 2011 MLB Draft, it felt like a story that writers dream about covering. Here was Starling, a graduate of Gardner Edgerton High School in Gardner, Kansas, just outside of Kansas City. Hometown boy drafted by team he grew up cheering for, right? It was a narrative we all dream of.
The problem is that sometimes life doesn’t play out the way a novel or a script might. Sometimes reality is a bit of a bitter pill, a splash of cold water on the dreamer’s expectations. The hope was that Starling would roam the spacious outfield at Kauffman Stadium, running down fly balls to the adulation of his family and friends. Reality hasn’t been nearly as glossy.
After seven years of wandering in the Kansas City farm system, Starling was non-tendered a contract at the end of November. The belief at the time was that Starling would re-sign with the Royals, this time to a minor league deal. As expected, Starling returned to the organization earlier this week:
We have agreed to minor league contracts with outfielder Bubba Starling, pitcher Jason Adam and first baseman Samir Dueñez.— Kansas City Royals (@Royals) December 17, 2018
So while reality has been less than ideal, the dream for Starling is still technically alive. But as he gets ready for his age 26 season, we have to wonder if the big leagues is still in the cards for Bubba.
Most of us are aware of the issues Starling has dealt with, as injuries and offensive struggles have derailed his arrival to Kansas City. Over seven minor league seasons, he has hit a combined .236/.312/.386 over close to 2500 plate appearances. Starling looked to be finally breaking through over the summer of 2017, as he hit .290/.327/.435 from the beginning of May through July 9th. But then an oblique injury sidelined him until August 11; a week later, the oblique knocked him out for the rest of the season.
With Lorenzo Cain gone, center field seemed attainable for Bubba in 2018 if he could get back on track. Unfortunately, the oblique injury lingered, and was then followed by a dislocated left index finger. When it was all said and done, Starling made only 66 plate appearances last year, hitting .296/.415/.611, playing in the rookie league and AAA.
So now that he is banished from the 40-man roster and on a minor league deal, is there still some upside in Bubba? The truth is that while things might look bleak, the release might have been just what he needed. Expectations have never been lower and I’m sure some will even forget he is still around.
But…if he stays healthy and continues to hit like he did in 2017, we could see Starling in the big leagues. His glove has been major league ready for years and is the true selling point of his talent. Just ask our friends over at Royals Farm Report:
The great thing about him too is that, he doesn’t need to hit .300 to be a productive MLB center fielder. Bubba is so good defensively that all he he’d need to do is be an AVERAGE hitter and his defense will actually give him some decent value in the big leagues.
If Bubba can produce at even a level close to his 2015 season in AA (where he put up a wRC+ of 105 in 367 plate appearances) then he would be worthy of a big league spot.
You might be asking yourself “but isn’t the Royals outfield crowded right now?” and the answer to that is ‘yes’. With Alex Gordon in left field, Jorge Bonifacio and Jorge Soler in right, and Billy Hamilton, Brian Goodwin and Brett Phillips in center field, that is six possible outfielders at a loaded position (think clowns piling into a small car). Throw in Whit Merrifield, Chris Owings, Ryan O’Hearn and Hunter Dozier as players who have played out there before, and you have very little room for Starling. Which is why the issue would need to be pressed.
The deck is stacked against him. While there are players who have blossomed after their age 26 seasons (Hi Whit!), every day makes it less and less likely to happen. An argument could even be made that maybe he would be better served to go to a different organization, one without the pressure of being a 1st round draft pick and a hometown kid.
So there is a scenario where Bubba makes it to the big leagues. If he stays healthy, hits just a little bit and the Royals need help in the outfield, he could get the call. That’s a lot of blocks to fall into place, but it could happen.
Look, the expectations of being a top five draft pick are always lofty and on average those expectations are rarely met. In some ways, Starling was doomed from the moment Kansas City drafted him all those years ago. The pressure of living up to the hype is something I do not wish onto anyone, let alone a kid from the Royals backyard.
So let the dreamers still dream, because as long as he has a contract there is a chance. We can even hope that the stars align and he reaches a few goals that were tossed his way seven years ago. Maybe if the Royals hadn’t felt like they “missed” on Albert Pujols they wouldn’t have felt inclined to draft Bubba.
Maybe that’s the point. Maybe the Royals drafted out of fear. Or maybe he fit what they look for in a baseball player: athletic, toolsy and fast, with good defense. In many ways, Bubba Starling is the blueprint of what the Royals want their players to be. The bad news is that this story has been a disappointment to this point. The good news is that there is still time for a few more chapters to be written as well.