There was a brief pause just seconds after Bubba Starling’s butt hit the seat in the press conference room at Kauffman Stadium, so a reporter quickly fired a question.
It prompted a moment of laughter when Royals VP of communication Mike Swanson chimed in, “I guess we’ll get started now.”
Even Starling broke into laughter at the exchange. Now 26, Starling has been a high-profile victim of fate’s cruel twists for the better part of eight years. He kept chasing his goal of playing for the team he rooted for as a child, but it seemed to get farther away.
The Royals picked him No. 5 overall in the 2011 Major League Baseball Draft, and his debut finally came on Friday night. His name appeared in the starting lineup batting seventh and playing center field. The Royals officially purchased Starling’s contract and and added him to the active roster prior to the game. In a corresponding move they designated outfielder Terrance Gore for assignment.
Perhaps it was fitting that the first question came a bit prematurely considering how anxiously folks have awaited the arrival of Starling, the local boy overflowing with athleticism from Gardner Edgerton High School.
Thursday after the Royals announced his promotion to the majors, Starling posted to Instagram an image of himself as a small child wearing a Royals tank top and a Royals baseball cap.
“It’s very special,” Starling said. “I’ve been waiting for this my whole life, dreamed about it as a little guy growing up coming to ball games here in Kansas City. Now that it’s finally happening, I’m just very excited, very happy.”
Starling thanked Royals general manager Dayton Moore and the entire front office for sticking with him through the “ups and downs,” which included offensive struggles, injury-plagued years and eventually Starling being taken off the 40-man roster and made a free agent last offseason.
“Some people don’t know how tough baseball really is,” said Starling. “You can be as physically gifted as you want to be, but most of it’s mental. When I came out of high school, I didn’t really know that. It took me this amount of years now to finally get here. I’ve matured. I went through a lot of struggles, but I think those struggles are the (thing) that have made me the player (I am) today.”
Starling received word of his promotion from assistant general manager J.J. Picollo and scouting director Lonnie Goldberg via a three-way phone call on Wednesday night in El Paso, Texas, following the Class AAA All-Star Game. Starling’s family had traveled with him for the game.
Startling batted .310, posted a .358 on-base percentage, slugged .448 with 20 extra-base hits, 38 RBIs and nine stolen bases in 72 games for Class AAA Omaha.
Moore, who spoke to reporters in the dugout prior to Friday’s game, said the question of when Starling would reach the majors had to be the most-asked during his tenure in Kansas City.
“I think the thing we need to watch with Bubba is watch his pregame preparations, watch how he manages the ups and downs, watch his routines and watch how he competes,” Moore said of expectations for Starling. “I can’t predict results. We can demand and expect an approach. That’s what we will look to see.”
Royals manager Ned Yost said Starling will play regularly and his presence makes it easier to rotate players in and out of the designated hitter role, such as Alex Gordon, Whit Merrifield and Jorge Soler.
“It’s going to take time,” Yost said. “It’s going to be a bit of an adjustment for him up here. We know he’s a quality defender. Just go play your game, do what you’ve been doing. We’re not looking for anything special. We just want him to play, get his feet wet.”
A scout for an American League club offered his observation of Starling and what to expect from him as he adjusts to the majors.
“He is going to struggle with swing and miss at the next level and won’t show a ton of power,” the scout said. “Would like to see him be a bit more aggressive — gets into too many bad counts with some passivity in his approach, which then can be exposed by quality pitching.
“That said, there is unrefined raw bat talent and can play defense.”
The scout stressed that Starling shouldn’t be viewed as a savior, but can be a reasonable fourth outfield option.
He also added that while Starling isn’t a kid anymore, the injuries and missed time mean there’s still some upside left.