At 2:50 p.m. on Friday, the Royals received a glimpse at what, in an ideal world, could be their future. To start the bottom of the sixth inning of a 9-3 loss to the Reds, Bubba Starling bounded out of their dugout, with Hunter Dozier a few steps behind him.
Starling, the fifth pick in the 2011 draft, settled into center field. Dozier, the eighth pick in the 2013 draft, manned third base. Both are far from the majors, and the road ahead is fraught with pitfalls. But on Friday they made their Cactus League debuts as the club played a split-squad game.
“This is what me and Bubba are working for,” Dozier said. “We want to be out here starting. And it was great to be a part of it.”
Each played three innings in the field. Dozier flied out and struck out in his two at-bats. Starling hit a hard ground ball that was fielded clean. But they soaked up the experience.
The action found them early. With one out in the sixth, James Shields gave up a fly ball that looked routine. Starling headed back for the outfield wall, but the ball kept drifting. He scaled the wall, but came up empty.
“I thought I was going to camp under it,” Starling said. “But this Arizona ball flies. It just barely got over there.”
One pitch later, Dozier bounded across the infield to scoop a softly-struck grounder. His throw easily beat third baseman Neftali Soto.
“It was good to get the first one out of the way,” Dozier said. “Settle the nerves.”
They most likely will be teammates in Class A Wilmington, along with Raul Mondesi, the 18-year-old shortstop wunderkind. Mondesi may be the organization’s finest position talent; Baseball America recently rated him the No. 29 prospect in the game.
Mondesi started at shortstop in the other game in Tempe, a 7-3 loss to the Angels. Manager Ned Yost lamented he would not be able to watch him. The stress of the day had loomed over him for a few days. This late in the spring, he explained, setting up two road games spread across the desert was a tall task.
“It takes a lot of brain power to coordinate and quarterback a split-squad game,” Yost said. “My RAM space in my hard drive is full.”
Instead, he got a chance to watch two other prized players. Last summer, the Royals centered their draft strategy around Sean Manaea, the talented but injured left-handed starter from Indiana State. They projected him available at the 34th pick, and adjusted their budget accordingly.
But they do not view Dozier, who signed for a below-slot bonus of $2.2 million as an afterthought. In 69 games last year, Dozier clubbed pitchers in the rookie-level Pioneer League and Class A South Atlantic League. He posted an .897 on-base-plus-slugging percentage with seven homers and 30 doubles. He was under consideration for an invitation to big-league camp.
Starling saw his stock decline in 2013. He entered the season rated the game’s No. 35 prospect by Baseball America. The publication did not include him in their top 100 this past winter. There are concerns about his ability to hit as he rises up the ranks. He batted .241 with Class A Lexington.
The Royals have urged caution. They understood Starling’s background — a three-spot star at Gardner-Edgerton High — would only enhance the expectations. General manager Dayton Moore has said the team needs two more seasons of evaluation before they can estimate when Starling will be big-league ready.
So Friday was just a taste. The sensation may not come again soon. Both players only hope to return as fast as they can.
“Hopefully soon, some day, I’ll be out here like all the other guys,” Starling said. “Keep working. It’s fun playing with all these big leaguers.”