On Saturday, the Royals made a minor move, announcing that they had re-signed pitchers Carlos Sanabria and Foster Griffin, as well as outfielder Bubba Starling to Minor League contracts:
The news really did not come as much of a surprise to Royals fans. Sanabria was just acquired on waivers from the Astros, so it would not make sense to release him after not even seeing him pitch. Griffin is on the IL after getting Tommy John, so his DFA had more to do with roster reconfiguration than perception of Griffin as a prospect. However, the Starling signing is a bit more intriguing because it probably has less to do with the Royals’ desire to have him back in Kansas City and more about his lack of options elsewhere around the league.
Honestly, Starling probably did not get any offers from any other MLB teams, and his local ties and former high-signing bonus status are probably a couple of the reasons why the Royals offered him a Minor League contract for 2021.
But safe to say, after the acquisition of Michael A. Taylor, and the outfield depth chart looking deeper than ever with Khalil Lee being added to the 40-man roster this Winter, it seems unlikely that if Starling does play baseball in the Royals organization in 2021, it most likely will be in Triple-A Omaha.
And thus, with Starling 28-years-old, Royals fans have to wonder: will 2021 be Starling’s last season of professional baseball?
As of now, it seems like all the signs are pointing to an early retirement for Starling during 2021, though who knows when that announcement or end will exactly be.
There is no question the Bubba Starling story is a complicated one for Royals fans. A local product out of Gardner, Kansas, Starling was the Kansas equivalent of Drew Henson: a talented multi-sport athlete who not only excelled in football and baseball, but had ample opportunities at the next level in both sports. For football, he had a full ride offer to the University of Nebraska and his running-first style would have been a good fit for a program that was used to quarterbacks who used their legs to find the end zone, such as Tommie Frazier, Scott Frost, and Eric Crouch. Even when one watches his football highlights below, it’s incredible to think what Starling would have been capable of with the Cornhuskers, had he took that route:
However, in the 2011 MLB Draft, the Kansas City Royals selected Starling 5th overall. While he was a local guy, Starling was not considered an “over-draft” by any means, as he was widely considered the top prep position prospects in that draft, and there were numerous reports that the Washington Nationals liked Starling and would have selected him, had the Royals not drafted him (they drafted Anthony Rendon at No. 6 instead). Knowing that he was weighing an offer from Nebraska, the Royals gave him a $7.5 million signing bonus, a club record at the time, and the second-highest signing bonus given in the draft that year (only first overall pick Gerrit Cole got a higher bonus at $8 million). Starling may have been raw in his baseball experience compared to other prep prospects coming from other “baseball heavy” areas such as California and Florida, especially since he didn’t play the sport year-around. However, Starling’s tools were graded so highly by scouts, and there was a feeling that by 2015-2016, Starling would be a mainstay in center field at Kauffman Stadium.
That being said, as Royals fans know, Starling never lived up to his enormous hype, even in the Minors. He did perform decently in 2012 in his first season of Rookie ball in Burlington, as he posted a slash of .275/.371/.485 with an OPS of .856. Furthermore, he also added 10 home runs and 10 stolen bases in 53 games and 232 plate appearances in the Appy League, which gave Royals fans hope that Starling could develop into the real deal in the next two to three seasons. Unfortunately, despite being ranked as 35th best prospect in baseball going into 2013, according to Baseball America, things just nosedived for Starling once he reached full-season Minor League ball.
Spending the whole seasons in Low A Lexington in 2013, Starling posted a .727 OPS and struck out 128 times in 125 games and 498 plate appearances with the Legends. Things got even worse in 2014 in a promotion to High-A Wilmington, as he only posted a .642 OPS and struck out 150 times in 132 games and 549 plate appearances with the Blue Rocks. Starling looked overwhelmed and out of his league as a 20 and 21-year-old in the Sally and Carolina League, and not surprisingly, he tumbled not only in the national prospect rankings, but in the Royals system rankings as well (he was not ranked in the Royals Top 30 by MLB Pipeline by 2016).
After showing some slight signs of improvement in a 91 game stint in Double-A Northwest Arkansas in 2015 (he posted a .744 OPS and hit 19 doubles and 10 home runs in 366 at-bats), he struggled in 2016 in both Triple-A Omaha and a repeat of Double-A, as he posted OPS metrics of .478 and .573 in 47 and 62 games with the Storm Chasers and Naturals, respectively. 2017 was a slight uptick in OPS at Omaha, as he posted a .685 mark, but he only played in 80 games, as he dealt with different nagging injuries and stints on the IL.
By the conclusion of the 2017 season, a lot of hope seemed lost on Starling, as Aaron Schwenker of Royals Farm Report said this about Starling’s struggles as a prospect:
Bubba has had 4+ unsatisfactory years in the minors. 2012-2014 were very forgettable years for Bubba; however, his stolen bases were solid in Low-A and A+ with 22 and 17 SBs, respectively. In the Fall of 2015, he was sent to the Arizona Fall League and batted .274 with a .770 OPS. Things seemed to be turning around for Bubba and they started him the following year at AA and then AAA where he put up a combined BA of .183 with a .534 OPS (yikes). His stolen base numbers across AA and AAA for 2015 and 2016 were in the double digits which is good, but 2017 he was in AAA the whole year and proved he still has not figured out how to steal bases on a consistent basis with only 5 SBs all year. Not very encouraging for a top 5 pick from six years ago.“Prospect Watch: Bubba Starling” by Aaron Schwenker; Royals Farm Report; October, 2017
Injuries pretty much limited his 2018 season to only 20 games, and there seemed to be some sentiment among Royals fans that at 25-years-old, Starling would be better of retiring from baseball and maybe try a run at football in a Brandon Weeden or Chris Weinke-esque fashion. However, to Starling’s credit, he continued the baseball path, and not only did well in a 72-game stint in Omaha to begin 2019 (he posted an .806 OPS in 285 plate appearances with the Storm Chasers), but he also earned a call up to the Royals in July, something that seemed unthinkable to Royals fans as recently as 2018.
In fact, in his MLB debut, he scored the game-winning a run and earned a postgame cooler bath, which seemed like sweet redemption after so many years of struggle in the Minor Leagues.
While his career started with a heartwarming highlight, Starling’s Major League career thus far has been a struggle, especially at the plate. Pitch recognition has been a key problem for Starling at the Major League level over two MLB seasons, much like his time in the Minors. In 91 career MLB games and 261 plate appearances, Starling has accumulated 83 strikeouts and only 13 walks, good for a BB/K ratio of 0.13, which is pretty sub-par to put it nicely. According to Fangraphs, his career MLB contact rate is under 70 percent (69.8 percent), and his swinging strike rate is also 14.8 percent, both negative marks. And lastly, while his defense has gotten some good remarks from Royals coaches and fans, it hasn’t really showed up in the metrics, as he has a -6 DRS (defensive runs saved) and -1 UZR (runs saved via Ultimate Zone rating), which has helped produce a career -0.9 WAR, according to Fangraphs data.
Thus, when putting the offensive and defensive picture for Starling together over the past two years, it’s not surprising that the Royals released Starling from the 40-man roster, and why they only brought him back on a Minor League deal. At this point, Starling is on the Royals roster simply for organizational depth, and to think that he could be a starting outfielder again at the Major League level is wishful thinking.
Honestly, Royals fans have to wonder if Starling will probably hang up the cleats at some point in 2021, maybe at the conclusion of Spring Training in 2021, if he doesn’t make the active roster (which seems likely). There doesn’t seem to be any suitors for his talents, and though he could perhaps rejuvenate his career in Japan or Korea, he doesn’t seem to have the kind of personality to make that kind of move (and even then, I am not sure if he would be all that in demand in those countries either). Starling is a Kansas guy through and through, and trying to adjust to another country, let alone a place outside of the KC metro, may be an ordeal that could be more effort than it is worth at this point in his career. An early retirement could be an opportunity for Starling to perhaps explore another avenue in his baseball career, such as coaching, either in the Royals organization or perhaps at the high school and/or college level.
There is no question that Starling’s career will be anointed as a tremendous disappointment, especially considering all the “local hero” hype he had coming in. Granted, that’s not necessarily his fault: it seemed widely understood that even though his tools were pretty impressive, he was going to be a project of sorts for any team that drafted him (i.e. he wasn’t going to move quickly in any farm system). Furthermore, considering where he was in 2018, when it seemed like he would never reach the Majors, the fact that he did play 91 games with the Royals is a small victory, especially when you consider former Top 10 picks in recent history that didn’t sniff the Majors (like Mark Appel and Barret Loux for example).
That being said, it will always be hard to look at Starling and his draft class and not cringe when seeing the players drafted after the No. 5 slot in that draft:
- Anthony Rendon, No. 6, 31.2 WAR
- Francisco Lindor, No. 8, 28.7 WAR
- George Springer, No. 11, 27.5 WAR
- Trevor Story, No. 45, 21.0 WAR
- Jackie Bradley, Jr., No. 40, 18.0 WAR
- Javier Baez, No. 9, 17.7 WAR
- Kolten Wong, No. 22, 16.6 WAR
And that’s only including position players, as the pitcher list becomes even more depressing. Thus, it will be hard for Royals fans to look at Starling’s career too optimistically, especially considering the Royals could have had a franchise-changing shortstop (Lindor, Story, or Baez) or outfielder (Springer) in the draft, had they not selected Starling. It will always be Starling’s curse as a Royal: he will always be known for what he wasn’t and what he could’ve been, rather than what he was.
If Starling does hang it up, hopefully, he will go out peacefully and with little derision, and I think he probably will now, especially after playing some in Kansas City at the Major League level. I could see him still living in Gardner once his career is done, hunting and fishing when he’s not coaching, at peace with his career, even if it may have not lived up to Royals fans’ expectations. Starling seemed to shoulder massive expectations ever since he was drafted 5th overall in 2011, and whenever he was around in public, even though he didn’t have the bravado of a Salvy or Brett Phillips, he was always polite, always positive, and took things in stride. He was just part of a loaded draft class, and that’s how the chips fall sometimes for baseball teams. Sometimes the club picks the right guy, and sometimes they don’t. That’s simply part of the game, even it may be tough to stomach for teams and fans alike.
I do hope Starling can prove me and other Royals fans wrong. Maybe he tears it up this Spring. Maybe he does make the Royals’ active roster. Maybe he becomes at least a platoon outfielder, and he finds a Jarrod Dyson or Paulo Orlando role in the next few seasons. It’s unlikely, but it’s possible. After all, the Royals wouldn’t have given him a Minor League deal if they didn’t believe in him at all.
But like I said before, the chips are stacked against him going into 2021.
And it just feels like it will be good for both sides when Starling calls it a career for good.
At least that way, Royals fans can move on.