Sam Mellinger

Bubba Starling, finally a big-leaguer: what it means for him and the Royals’ future

Bubba Starling, in order:

  • Grew into a local folk hero at Gardner-Edgerton High with stories of 500-foot home runs and windmill dunks and a man-against-boys football career.
  • Turned down a scholarship to play quarterback at Nebraska for the largest signing bonus in Royals history.
  • Failed in the minor leagues.
  • Told his parents he wanted to quit baseball.
  • Decided to keep playing, then got hurt.
  • Played well enough last year to be called up, but got hurt once more.
  • Played well enough to make the Triple-A All-Star Game this season.
  • Is now a big-leaguer.

Starling, finally, will be at Kauffman Stadium this weekend. After eight years and 737 minor-league games he is expected to make his big-league debut on Friday night, at the age of 26, starting in centerfield some 35 miles from where he grew up.

For what must seem like forever, Starling’s baseball career has been about questions and doubts. Now it is about opportunity.

“I know he’s ready,” general manager Dayton Moore said. “He’s done everything he can in the minor leagues to be prepared for this. So I’m not really going to be concerned about anything. I just want him to come up here and enjoy playing in the major leagues.”

Moore and his lieutenants believe Starling will make the Royals better now and in the future. He slashed .310/.358/.448 with nine stolen bases, 21 walks and 59 strikeouts in 72 games with Omaha.

In a phone conversation Thursday afternoon, Moore hinted the club may have promoted Starling a week or two earlier, but thought playing in the Triple A All-Star game was important for his development.

Some housekeeping here: Starling will play regularly, mostly in center but also some in right. The scouting report describes an exceptional defender — he’s been called Lorenzo Cain with a better arm, which may be a bit overzealous — and a bat that could hit 20-plus home runs while striking out often.

“The power and defense is the really intriguing part of it,” Moore said.

The Royals will announce a corresponding move before Friday’s game. It won’t be designating Billy Hamilton for assignment, though Starling’s arrival will diminish Hamilton’s playing time more than anyone else’s.

Starling has long held an outsized place in the Royals’ future. The 2011 draft class burst with potential stars and the truth is the Royals would have preferred to draft one of four pitchers with their fifth overall pick.

When all four were gone, they faced what they recognized immediately as a massive moment. Anthony Rendon, Francisco Lindor, Javier Baez and George Springer would be among the next five position players selected. The Royals bet on Starling’s superior athleticism, with at least a tinge of geographical obligation.

Nobody wanted another Albert Pujols to star somewhere else. The day they drafted Starling, a Royals executive called it the most important selection the franchise would make in years. The decision has been among the most prominent examples used when taking inventory of nearly a decade’s worth of draft classes that haven’t produced enough.

Starling came to professional baseball with little experience and raw skills, particularly when compared to most modern top prospects. He was a three-sport star in a state with a short high school season. The Royals took a cautious approach, but even then he was off baseball’s top 100 prospect list two years after being drafted.

Rock bottom came two years ago. He’d had a miserable 2016. He hit .183 and struck out more than once out of every three times up to bat. On May 7, 2017, he was hitting .133 with a .205 slugging percentage when he told his parents he was done.

Instead, he reset with the help of a minor mechanical adjustment (he lowered his hands, basically), and from his darkest baseball moment came his brightest: he slashed .297/.344/.456 the rest of 2017 and the Royals expected to call him up last year before an injury wrecked his season after just 11 games.

The questions about Starling’s big-league readiness have never been about talent. More often, they’ve been about approach, confidence, and a general understanding of what’s expected and required of a major-leaguer.

The Royals now see those questions answered as well as possible in the minor leagues, and view the season’s final 72 games as their first chance to evaluate where he fits into the team’s future.

Starling’s big-league success is as difficult to predict as his minor-league track. There is some hope that Starling is among those who perform better in the major leagues, but either way the Royals have many recent examples of players who overcame early struggles.

Zack Greinke wore the label of bust before winning the 2009 AL Cy Young award. Mike Moustakas took a demotion before starring in the 2014 postseason and making the next year’s All-Star team. Lorenzo Cain never made a top 100 prospect list, became a big-league regular at 27, and finished third in MVP voting at 29.

The best example might be Alex Gordon — college player of the year at 21, minor-league player of the year at 22, preseason Rookie of the Year pick at 23, and injured bust at 25.

Gordon has since made three All-Star teams and won six Gold Gloves, and his home run in game one of the 2015 World Series is among the franchise’s most iconic moments. If Gordon’s career took the expected route of instant stardom, maybe he wouldn’t have been around to hit that sinker over the centerfield fence.

That’s the hope for Starling. Maybe that’s too much. Maybe the expectations have always been too much. Nobody can know, even now, and at this moment that’s the only point that matters.

“He’s dealt with a lot of hardship, a lot of frustration,” Moore said. “He’s heard all the negativity, and the ‘can’t-miss misses’ stuff. He’s experienced so much failure in the minor leagues, so he’s probably more ready to deal with that now and have a good career than if he’d broken into the major leagues three years ago.

“That’s my hope, and that’s my belief. So all of that could be a blessing in disguise. People have said he’s a bust. But we don’t know that yet.”

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.