The Royals are opting for a clean slate with top prospect Bubba Starling.
That was the phrase used Saturday by assistant general manager J.J. Picollo after the club officially promoted the center fielder to Class AAA Omaha following a frustrating season at Class AA Northwest Arkansas.
Starling, a first-round pick in 2011, was batting just .185 with a .251 on-base percentage and five homers in 62 games for the Naturals. The hope, Picollo said, is that a change of scenery will help lessen the stress and unlock the potential in Starling, who has scuffled at the plate for most of 2016.
“It may look a little unconventional with his numbers,” Picollo said. “We feel like he’s playing better than his average. But it’s sometimes hard to convince a player of that.”
Starling’s performance this season represents a disappointing step back for the 23-year-old native of Gardner, especially after a 2015 that appeared to signal significant progress. Starling posted a .785 on-base plus slugging percentage last season while splitting time between two levels, his best offensive numbers since 2012. His offense has regressed in 2016; he also missed 11 days in late May after suffering a heel contusion.
Picollo said the Royals had discussed the move for weeks. After outfielder Reymond Fuentes suffered a hamstring injury earlier this week, the Omaha roster had a hole in the outfield. Starling could transition to the Pacific Coast League, where his batting average would reset. In essence, the move is being viewed as a reboot, an opportunity for Starling to start over.
“Triple-A is a different challenge,” Picollo said. “But at the same time, there’s not a whole lot that separates the two levels.”
The Royals have long viewed Starling’s defensive potential as elite, suggesting he could handle center field in the major leagues right now. They have also praised his baserunning. His offense, however, has been a constant work in progress.
Last season, he appeared to take a step forward, batting .386 with two homers at Class A Wilmington before being promoted to Northwest Arkansas. Once there, he hit .254 with a .318 on-base percentage and 10 homers in 91 games in the Texas League.
Starling, who committed to play football at Nebraska out of high school, will now continue his minor-league career just down the road from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.