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Should the Royals call up Bubba Starling now?

Should it be Bubba time in Kansas City?

Kansas City Royals Photo Day Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Nicky Lopez is finally up with the Royals after weeks of fans clamoring for his arrival. His debut was marked with his first hit and a “Salvy Splash” in a blowout win, and even if he doesn’t put up the numbers he did dominating the Pacific Coast League in Omaha, he offers hope to Royals fans longing for a younger lineup full of upside.

With the Royals now fielding an infield lineup that averages just 24.5 years of age, the club looks more like a team rebuilding than a team trying to paper over holes in the roster with aging veterans in a vain attempt to win 75 games. This of course has fans wondering - who’s next?

With the outfield populated by three players all age-28 or older in Alex Gordon, Billy Hamilton, and Whit Merrifield, an injection of youth could be welcome there as well. Jorge Bonifacio showed some promise with the bat in 2017, but is a liability on defense and has failed to hit at all since his 2018 suspension for PEDs. Brett Phillips is a plus defender, but he has struggled with the bat in Omaha, with his average below the Mendoza Line and a strikeout rate of 36%.

What about Bubba Starling? The former first-round pick has seemingly suffered a setback any time he shows the slightest indication of turning the proverbial corner. He nearly quit the game after a dismal season in 2016 and a slow start in 2017. Last year was pretty much a lost year after he missed much of the first-half with an oblique injury, and the second-half with a dislocated finger. He missed winter ball due to an illness, and the Royals removed him from the 40-man roster, giving him the opportunity to leave if he wanted to.

But Starling stayed and the early results are promising. After an impressive performance in spring training, Bubba continued to hit in the regular season, and is batting .343/.388/.444 with two home runs for Omaha. What are the pros and cons to calling him up to Kansas City at this point?

Pro: Bubba fits well into the speed and defense philosophy

Bubba’s defense has been Major League-ready for a few years now and he can cover some ground in center field with a strong arm. He has terrific speed and is an outstanding athlete capable of being a weapon on the bases. As a minor leaguer, he has an 81% success rate as a base-stealer, and his stolen base totals are only low because he has historically gotten on base so infrequently. This year he has already swiped six bases in seven tries in just 31 games. He has been described as “freakishly athletic” and would fit in perfectly with a team built on speed and defense.

Con: Where would he play?

The Royals are already set with a rejuvenated Alex Gordon in left and their best player, Whit Merrifield, in right. That leaves centerfield, where Billy Hamilton has not surprisingly struggled with the bat, hitting .228/.310/.289. The Royals likely figured Hamilton wouldn’t be much offensively, instead valuing his speed (nine steals) and defense (0.4 dWAR). With the Royals on the hook for a $6.25 million deal and with manager Ned Yost preferring to rely on his veterans, it may be hard for Starling to crack the starting lineup even over a struggling Hamilton. And that’s if he even cracks the roster. Sure, many Royals fans would love to see the team cut ties with Lucas Duda or Chris Owings, but is the team really going to cut a veteran in May?

Pro: Bubba could likely be an improvement over Hamilton

Hamilton has still been a valuable player in past years due to his defense, but this year it has been underwhelming so far (with the caveat that this is a pretty small sample size for defensive stats). If the scouting reports are even close to correct, it is probably not a stretch to expect Starling to match Hamilton defensively this year. And while Hamilton is a prolific base-stealer, he has already been caught four times this year, leading the league. Furthermore, it is difficult to steal bases when you get on base less then 30% of the time. Starling would not have to do much offensively to be an upgrade over Hamilton. ZIPS projected Starling to flounder (this was before his hot start) with a .582 OPS - that’s not much worse than Hamilton’s current .600 OPS. This year he has dramatically cut down on his strikeout rate - his biggest Achilles’ heel. If Starling has indeed turned that corner, he could be a significant upgrade.

Con: Do we know Bubba’s ready?

The biggest factor in determining whether the Royals should call up Bubba Starling is whether or not the Royals think he is ready. Starling is a career .241/.315./389 hitter in the minors, so the only reasons he would be given a chance would be based on his (a) defense; (b) pedigree; and (c) about six weeks of good play. We have gotten excited about hot streaks before from Bubba only to see him sink back down into a frustrating season-long slump. Starling is also out of option years, so if the Royals call him up and he is overwhelmed, to send him back down they would have to expose him to waivers.

Pro: But it may be time to sink or swim for Bubba anyway

On the other hand, Starling probably needs an extended look at big league action at this point. He is 26 - he’ll turn 27 in August - so he’s not exactly some young prospect you need to handle delicately. This could well be his last great shot at reaching the big leagues, so why not give him an extended trial for a few months, and if he fails, well, what team wants to claim a 27-year old outfielder who hasn’t hit much in the minors? And this hot streak feels different from Bubba. We actually have six weeks of solid play from Starling, rather than 10 games where you had to squint and say “hey, he wasn’t awful and maybe if he had another hit his numbers would be above-average, and how about that defense?” If anything, Starling has gotten better as the season has gone on, hitting .359 in the month of May.

The front office will have to wrestle with the question on whether to call up Bubba much as they did with Nicky Lopez. The exact timing may not be clear, but it seems likely we will see Bubba Starling at some point this season. The next question is - what does he do with the opportunity?


Should the Royals call up Bubba Starling right now?

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