Royals still hoping for a breakout from former first-round pick Bubba Starling

Outfielder Bubba Starling hit .177 in 20 games during the Arizona Fall League but has major-league-ready defense, according to the Royals’ general manager.
Outfielder Bubba Starling hit .177 in 20 games during the Arizona Fall League but has major-league-ready defense, according to the Royals’ general manager. THE KANSAS CITY STAR

Bubba Starling spent the World Series in the desert, wearing the uniform of the Peoria Javelinas. Starling caught snatches of the Royals’ run when he could, when he wasn’t busy continuing his baseball education in the Arizona Fall League.

“Growing up in Kansas City, that’s what we’ve been waiting for,” Starling said. “And it’s here now.”

When Starling will join in the fun remains an unanswered question. He received an invitation to his first big-league camp for this spring training. He reported early and optimistic, encouraged by an arduous offseason that included hitting instruction from Royals legend George Brett.

Starling will turn 23 this summer. He is in his fourth year in the organization after accepting a $7.5 million bonus to forgo a football scholarship at Nebraska. When the Royals took him with the fifth pick in the 2011 draft, they understood the Gardner Edgerton product may need time to develop. Starling is now in the thick of that process.

Despite encouraging signs in the summer, Starling finished with a career-low .642 on-base plus slugging percentage in Class A Wilmington. He struck out 150 times in 132 games. He enjoyed his experience in the Fall League, but his bat did not: Starling hit .177 in 20 games for the Javelinas.

The Royals force themselves to take the long view with Starling. Team officials insist they still believe in his talent. They still envision his five tools flourishing in the outfield of Kauffman Stadium. Dayton Moore has repeatedly said Starling could play defense in the majors at this juncture.

But he will not. Instead, Starling could spend the beginning of 2015 still in Wilmington, assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said. Picollo did not cast this possibility as a judgment on the dubiousness of Starling’s developmental path.

“Whether he’s in Wilmington or Double-A to start out the year, I don’t think it’s telling for where his career’s going,” Picollo said.

The sense of multiple team officials is once Starling unlocks the keys to his offensive game, his rise to the majors should be rapid. The trouble is those keys remain elusive. Starling is still learning the game’s finer points, and teaching himself the muscle memory he never developed as an amateur, when he split his time between the diamond, the gridiron and the basketball court.

The Royals are willing to wait. They lack little other choice. The talent is still there, hidden most of the time but apparent in flashes.

“He’s different,” Picollo said. “He’s still really different, athletically, than anybody else.”

Starling has kept a low profile here at camp. He met with reporters on Monday because of the high volume of requests from local television stations, eager to get a glimpse at the hometown prospect. Starling consistently referenced his optimism about learning from the winter. He fixed his eyes forward, rather than backward.

“Obviously failure is part of the game,” Starling said. “And I think I’ve overcome that this last few years better than I did starting out. I just want to keep working hard. I’m focused on the present. The past — can’t do anything about it now.”

He has another year to learn. Another year to attempt to improve. Another year to reward the Royals for their faith in him.

“Once he gains some confidence, feels the things that he’s feeling right now in B.P. and in his work, when he feels that in the game, his confidence level is going to go up,” Picollo said. “And that’s when he’ll take off.”

To reach Andy McCullough, call 816-234-4370 or send email to Follow him on Twitter: @McCulloughStar.

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