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Ten years after being a top Royals pick, Bubba Starling is still grinding

The Royals outfielder had “ no interest in going anywhere else.”

BBA-YANKEES-ROYALS John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Ten years ago this week, the Royals made a decision that significantly changed Bubba Starling’s life. With the fifth selection in the June draft, the Royals, Starling, and advisor Scott Boras would start a cat and mouse game over the summer. The top high school hitting prospect was also a Nebraska football commit. Once the Royals made the selection of the local boy, Boras wisely knew that there was too much leverage against the Royals not to sign him. The super-agent would get the Royals to commit to a then franchise-record $7.5 million bonus, a club record that stood until Bobby Witt’s signing in 2019.

You’ve heard the names picked after Starling - Francisco Lindor, Anthony Rendon, Javy Baez, and George Springer, to name a few. It was a great first round that has produced twelve different players with 10 career WAR or more in just that round with a chance to add at least three or four more with Brandon Nimmo, Michael Fulmer, Dylan Bundy, and Joe Musgrove continuing to add value to their resume. It’s the most of any draft since the 2005 draft. The -1.8 rWAR value Starling generated is the lowest in the round of any player to reach the big leagues, but you’ve often read about those results.

The comparisons to current top prospect Bobby Witt, Jr. float around based on the signing bonus and the fact that they were top five picks. Naturally, Witt and Adalberto Mondesi draw more comparisons due to each player’s position and development push. That push draws some criticism, but that wasn’t the case with Starling. The front office took a lot more time, not playing him in Arizona rookie ball his draft season and keeping him in extended spring training his first season before sending him out to short-season rookie ball in Burlington, North Carolina that first year.

From there, they took each year and level step to step, repeating if he needed with struggles and never pushing too much hype on him—the slow pushing, promoting when he hit a wall along with constant encouragement. Alongside the patience, Bubba made swing adjustments, stance adjustments and had work done on his eyes. Both the player and the franchise put in the time, and unfortunately, things never clicked for the outfielder, and in 91 career big leagues games, he hit .204/.246/.298 with a 31.8 percent strikeout rate. For all the heat the Royals take for pushing Mondesi too quickly, they took an extremely patient approach with Starling.

Despite this patient approach, things never clicked for Starling, and the brass made the difficult decision to non-tender the local pick this last winter. After ten years in the same organization, Bubba had an opportunity to walk away from the game if he wanted or to refresh. He had a chance to step away from Kansas City and the fans that had possibly put too much pressure on him to succeed. No one would have blamed him if he had chosen another direction with another team or away from the game altogether. This past week though, he told me that wasn’t a consideration.

“I grew up with KC, they non-tendered me, but I really had no interest in going anywhere else. I still have a chance to make it in the big leagues, but if I don’t, I am still around a bunch of guys that I love to be with.”

Starling is in a great position mentally right now, as he explained, “You know you can’t get down on yourself. I’ve been through the lowest of lows. It’s about getting out of that, flushing the day away.”

Things are still hitting bumpy patches this season for him, though, as he had to miss nearly two weeks with a Lasik surgery and a correction procedure afterward. Despite that, he seems focused on his teammates and what he can do to help them.

“I’ve played a little bit in the big leagues, so I can help these guys who are on the verge of getting up there by giving my two cents. It’s a tough game, Triple-A to the big leagues is two different things.”

Even with the Lasik corrections, things have started well this season for Bubba despite the time away as the outfielder has already hit six home runs, thanks to three different two-home run games. Never to get too high with himself, he’s keeping things in perspective.

“You’ve got to get your work in every day. It’s a long season and a long grind. Keep getting your work, stay the course.”

Mentally he seems like a player that is more comfortable with himself than ever before. No longer worried about the Nebraska football fans in Omaha or the KC fans hoping the local boy does well or living up to a bonus. Those days are long gone, and just playing good baseball and supporting the teammates he loves are the priority. Royals fans may have been disappointed in how things worked out in the past, but the outfielder they have to root on now is in the best possible place to be his best possible player. That should be more than enough for fans.