Starling’s Journey Not Done Yet

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It all seemed poetic at the time. When Bubba Starling was drafted by the Kansas City Royals as the 5th pick overall in the 2011 MLB Draft, it felt like a story that writers dream about covering. Here was Starling, a graduate of Gardner Edgerton High School in Gardner, Kansas, just outside of Kansas City. Hometown boy drafted by the team he grew up cheering for, right? It was a narrative we all dream of.

The problem is that sometimes life doesn’t play out the way a novel or a script might. Sometimes reality is a bit of a bitter pill, a splash of cold water on the dreamer’s expectations. The hope was that Starling would roam the spacious outfield at Kauffman Stadium, running down fly balls to the adulation of his family and friends. Reality hasn’t been nearly as glossy.

After seven years of wandering in the Kansas City farm system, Starling was non-tendered a contract at the end of November. The belief at the time was that Starling would re-sign with the Royals, this time to a minor league deal. As expected, Starling returned to the organization earlier this week:

So while reality has been less than ideal, the dream for Starling is still technically alive. But as he gets ready for his age 26 season, we have to wonder if the big leagues is still in the cards for Bubba.

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Most of us are aware of the issues Starling has dealt with, as injuries and offensive struggles have derailed his arrival to Kansas City. Over seven minor league seasons, he has hit a combined .236/.312/.386 over close to 2500 plate appearances. Starling looked to be finally breaking through over the summer of 2017, as he hit .290/.327/.435 from the beginning of May through July 9th. But then an oblique injury sidelined him until August 11; a week later, the oblique knocked him out for the rest of the season.

With Lorenzo Cain gone, center field seemed attainable for Bubba in 2018 if he could get back on track. Unfortunately, the oblique injury lingered, and was then followed by a dislocated left index finger. When it was all said and done, Starling made only 66 plate appearances last year, hitting .296/.415/.611, playing in the rookie league and AAA.   

So now that he is banished from the 40-man roster and on a minor league deal, is there still some upside in Bubba? The truth is that while things might look bleak, the release might have been just what he needed. Expectations have never been lower and I’m sure some will even forget he is still around.

But…if he stays healthy and continues to hit like he did in 2017, we could see Starling in the big leagues. His glove has been major league ready for years and is the true selling point of his talent. Just ask our friends over at Royals Farm Report: 


 The great thing about him too is that, he doesn’t need to hit .300 to be a productive MLB center fielder. Bubba is so good defensively that all he he’d need to do is be an AVERAGE hitter and his defense will actually give him some decent value in the big leagues.

If Bubba can even produce at a level close to his 2015 season in AA (where he produced a wRC+ of 105 in 367 plate appearances) then he would be worthy of a big league spot.

You might be asking yourself “but isn’t the Royals outfield crowded right now?” and the answer to that is ‘yes’. With Alex Gordon in left field, Jorge Bonifacio and Jorge Soler in right, and Billy Hamilton, Brian Goodwin and Brett Phillips in center field, that is six possible outfielders at a loaded position (think clowns piling into a small car). Throw in Whit Merrifield, Chris Owings, Ryan O’Hearn and Hunter Dozier as players who have played out there before, and you have very little room for Starling. Which is why the issue would need to be pressed.

The deck is stacked against him. While there are players who have blossomed after their age 26 seasons (Hi, Whit), every day makes it less and less likely to happen. An argument could even be made that maybe he would be better served to go to a different organization, one without the pressure of being a 1st round draft pick and a hometown kid.

So there is a scenario where Bubba makes it to the big leagues. If he stays healthy, hits just a little bit and the Royals need help in the outfield, he could get the call. That’s a lot of blocks to fall into place, but it could happen.

Look, the expectations of being a top five draft pick are always lofty and on average those expectations are rarely met. In some ways, Starling was doomed from the moment Kansas City drafted him all those years ago. The pressure of living up to the hype is something I do not wish onto anyone, let alone a kid from the Royals backyard.   

Credit: Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo

So let the dreamers still dream, because as long as he has a contract there is a chance. We can even hope that the stars align and he reaches a few goals that were tossed his way seven years ago. Maybe if the Royals hadn’t felt like they “missed” on Albert Pujols they wouldn’t have felt inclined to draft Bubba.

Maybe that’s the point. Maybe the Royals drafted out of fear. Or maybe he fit what they look for in a baseball player: athletic, toolsy and fast, with good defense. In many ways, Bubba Starling is the blueprint of what the Royals want their players to be. The bad news is that this story has been a disappointment to this point. But the good news is that there is still time for a few more chapters to be written as well.  

Sprucing Up the Museum

Credit: BaseballHall.org

On Sunday night, it was announced that the Today’s Game Era ballot had been voted on and they would be inducting Lee Smith and Harold Baines into the Baseball Hall of Fame this upcoming summer in Cooperstown, New York.

The 16-member committee for this ballot consisted of Hall of Famers Roberto Alomar, Bert Blyleven, Pat Gillick, Tony La Russa, Greg Maddux, Joe Morgan, John Schuerholz, Ozzie Smith and Joe Torre; major-league executives Al Avila, Paul Beeston, Andy MacPhail and Jerry Reinsdorf; and veteran media members/historians Steve Hirdt, Tim Kurkjian and Claire Smith. 

Smith getting inducted was no surprise, as he had reached as high as 50.6% on the BBWAA ballot and was a borderline candidate for years, mattering on where you stood on the induction of relievers into the hall. But Baines was another story.

Credit: MLB.com

Baines never received more than 6.1% of support on the BBWAA ballot and is probably the definition of a player with a good career that hung around long enough to compile some good numbers. Good, but not great. 

So how did Baines get in? Well, it probably helped that he had a former teammate (Alomar), a former manager (LaRussa) and a former owner (Reinsdorf) on his side. Also, Baines was always known as a good guy and a good teammate. For those within the game, that carries quite a bit of weight.

But for many of us, being a “great guy” doesn’t always qualify you for being a Hall of Famer. Cooperstown is the best of the best, and the numbers say that Baines isn’t one of the elite. But what if the hall honored those players who might not have been “the best of the best”, but were good for the game? What if there was a separate wing for those that were admired and loved outside of their accomplishments on the field? What if they included the true “characters” of the game? Maybe an award for the “nice guys” of the game?

Credit: Associated Press / Chris Cummins

This subject was actually broached to me last year by a friend and it was amusing because I had thought of the idea years ago. What initially sparked adding a separate wing for me was Buck O’Neil. Lets be honest: Kansas City loved Buck. He was not only a symbol of Kansas City baseball, for his ties to the Monarchs and his attendance at Royals games, but he was the benchmark of what is great about baseball in general.

Buck was friendly, cordial, and loved talking baseball with anyone  who wanted to. For him it wasn’t as much about giving back to the game as sharing something he loved with others. Who doesn’t remember Buck’s appearance in the Ken Burn’s documentary “Baseball”?:

In fact, despite not being inducted at Cooperstown, Buck did give a speech at the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony back in 2006 to honor the pioneers in the Negro Leagues:

Buck O’Neil might not have been one of the greatest players in history, but he was the definition of what was great about the game. It was unfortunate that while O’Neil helped honor the greats involved with the Negro Leagues, he himself had been overlooked for induction despite all he did for baseball.

Buck would pass away in late 2006 and in 2008 the Baseball Hall of Fame would honor his legacy with the creation of the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award. A statue was dedicated to the museum and every three years a new winner is announced. This is a great honor and one worthy of a man of O’Neil’s stature and character.

Now the Hall of Fame has done its due diligence when it comes to honoring those that are just as big a part of the game as the players. The Veterans Committe, which has lineage all the way back to 1939, would put together a subcommittee to consider candidates that not only involved players, but managers, umpires and executives as well. 

The hall has also handed out the Ford C. Frick award annually to honor a broadcaster for their contributions to the game. So there is no stone left unturned, starting in 1962 they would also honor a baseball writer annually, also known as the J.G. Taylor Spink award.   

But it would be nice if the hall could go a step further. The Baseball Hall of Fame is a museum and it would be fitting to include some of the more charitable and “class acts” that made the game better.

There would have to be a few guidelines to follow for this to happen. For one, the inductees for this achievement should be in a separate wing from the elite players who get inducted. There would have to be a definite difference between the two so fans are aware of this separate honor.

Credit: National Baseball Hall of Fame

Also, to show this is a different award it would probably be smart not to give them the same plaques as the greats of the game. Maybe instead of a plaque, present videos on each player and why they are worthy of this honor. Since this would be a different wing, it should have a different feel to it.

So who exactly should be honored for this award? The criteria would obviously be quite a bit different, as statistics wouldn’t matter as much as the footprint you leave on the game. In my vision of this honor, it would be about everything that is great for baseball. The eligible should be those that are great ambassadors, those that were genuine big-hearted and charitable that didn’t cause any issues and even the players who made the game more fun.

In my eyes, this honor would be about players like Andrew McCutchen, who has spent years giving back with his charitable work and when he was in Pittsburgh, giving back to the community. It would also be for someone like former Royals first baseman Mike Sweeney, who has put together baseball camps for kids and has always been one of the great guys in the game. 

Credit: Sports Illustrated

It would also include some of the players who made the game so much fun to watch. Take Bartolo Colon for example. Colon has played into his mid-40’s and has a child-like demeanor when he is out on the field that makes it easy to cheer for. The same could be said about former Detroit Tigers pitcher Mark Fidrych. “The Bird” had a short career with a number of highs and lows, but was one of the most entertaining players in baseball history.

These players make the game better and while they won’t go down as one of the “all-time greats” in baseball history, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be honored. Some of the greats weren’t good human beings, like Ty Cobb and former Boston Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, who both have been elected to baseball’s hallowed halls. Since this is a museum, you sometimes have to take the bad with the good, which is why it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to include more of the benevolent people involved within the game.

From every story or conversation that has been thrown out this week, Harold Baines appears to be one of the great guys that helped build a solid foundation for baseball. Maybe if a separate wing is put into the hall for guys like him, there won’t be a need to slide someone in where they might not fit. This way we could talk about why they deserve an honor instead of why they don’t.  

Third Time’s a Charm?

Credit: USA Today Sports

It’s been discussed many a time but it’s always worth throwing out there every few weeks: don’t expect the Kansas City Royals to be busy this winter. The truth of the matter is that the Royals need to see what their young talent can do and those opportunities should be the focus of 2019. 

But the one area that will need a bit of attention is the bullpen. Kansas City’s was one of the worst in baseball in 2018, if not the bottom of the barrel. The Royals bullpen had the worst fWAR (-2.2), FIP, the least amount of strike outs, the lowest strike out rate, the highest hard hit rate, the second highest ERA, and the third highest BABIP in all of baseball. There is no denying the bullpen needs to be their focus.

That being said, there aren’t many holdovers from this past season. The man who took over the closer role last year after Kelvin Herrera’s departure, Wily Peralta, is back. Also returning is Tim Hill, Brian Flynn and Kevin McCarthy. But after that is a menagerie of pitchers who are either candidates for a rotation spot and/or will get a second look in 2019.

So the Royals need relievers and it probably wouldn’t be a bad thing if they scoured the free agent market for some solid arms. In fact, a few veterans to mix with all the youngsters would actually be a good idea, if for anything to lead by example.With that being said, I’ve been wondering if the Royals should kick the tires on an old friend, Joakim Soria.

Credit: Associated Press

Just hearing that probably sounds crazy, as this would be the third go-around for Soria in Kansas City. But there are a few reasons this is actually a decent idea and one that isn’t awful for the Royals to pursue. Let’s start with the performance in 2018 for “Jack”.

Last year was a banner year for Soria: 3.12 ERA over 60 innings pitched, 1.8 fWAR, highest strike out rate since 2009, lowest walk rate since 2014 and the lowest hard hit rate since 2011. Soria threw more sliders, focused less on his curveball and changeup, and was rewarded with a great season.    

Credit: Associated Press

These changes saw a big difference in the results. While his ground ball rate went down, his fly ball rate went up. But with that hard hit rate dipping, it saw his soft hit rate go up almost 10% points. Soria was able to induce more soft contact which led to more outs and a higher rate of success. 

If we are being honest here, Soria’s second run in Kansas City wasn’t as bad as some would lead you to believe. While 2016 was the rougher of the two seasons, Soria was able to compile an ERA+ above league average both seasons (107 in ’16, 121 in ’17). Part of the problem was the narrative that went along with Soria, which was the belief some had that he was still the same pitcher many remembered in his glory days.

Credit: Stacy Revere/Getty Images

But the truth was that while Soria wasn’t the dominating closer we remember during his first run in Royal blue, he was still an above average reliever who could be relied on to get outs. While that was a struggle in 2016, he has now shown two straight years of reliable production and still has really good value going into his age 35 season.

So should Kansas City look into bringing him back again? There would be some advantages to going down this road again. For one, the familiarity. The Royals know what they are getting with him and have no worries about how he would assimilate himself into the clubhouse. Soria has almost always been described as a good teammate and when he returned in 2016 he fit right in with the current crop of players.

His veteran presence would be a plus and it’s easy to see him being a guy that the younger pitchers would look up to and seek out for advice. Soria is a guy who has experienced the highs and the lows, and brings a prospective that the Royals current crop of relievers just haven’t experienced.

Soria has also filled many roles over the years, whether it was as the closer, a setup guy or more of a situational reliever. The ability to shift his role could be valuable to this Royals team, as it appears 2019 could be a bit different when it comes to roles in the pen. Dayton Moore talked about the roles in the bullpen a few weeks backs and it sounds like it could be a more fluid experience: 


“I think when you’re a team with where we are, we’re still finding out a lot about our players, and I don’t think it makes sense to go ahead and anoint roles for our pitchers or our players at this point. There are some guys [whose roles] are very obvious, and Wily did an excellent job for us last year.


“But as you know, the most important thing is to make sure that we use our pitchers in a very efficient way to get 27 outs. We need to use our pitchers in a creative and efficient way to get 27 outs and win baseball games.

 If the bullpen next year is going to be used more creatively, that could be a situation where a guy like Soria would fit right in. He has always been a guy who is willing to take the ball whenever or wherever the teams needs him.

So what about financially? This would be probably the biggest speed-bump for the Royals but one that could be worked out. Soria made $9 million in 2018 and his option was set for $10 million in 2019 before the Brewers declined it. If we were to guess, Soria would probably hope to make in the $9-12 million range for the upcoming season. This would feel a bit steep for a club like the Royals, mostly because of the role he would be used in and their overall payroll situation.

The Royals are sitting right now in the $80-84 range for payroll in 2019, with the highest they would possibly be willing to go would be in the $110-115 million range. Adding Soria, even at $10 million, would probably limit them on acquiring any other relievers, which is still a very distinct possibility.

Credit:  Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Moore has been creative before and could probably figure out a way around this, maybe offering him a two-year deal with the second year backloaded. 2020 will probably see Alex Gordon’s contract off of the books, so there would be more room for payroll.

The issue would be whether or not you would feel comfortable signing a reliever to such a deal. If it was an elite reliever and one that was quite a bit younger, then yes, a deal like that would make sense. But for a guy entering his age 35 season, that feels like more of a reach. At this point, the most the Royals could offer would be a one-year deal with a mutual option, since Dayton loves those mutual options.  

Credit: Brian Davidson/Getty Images

The other issue is where Soria is at in his career. At best, he probably has 3-5 years left in him and most players in his situation would want to play for a contender. “Jack” has appeared in 10 playoff games over his career and he’s probably not going to receive many more opportunities. In fact, there are already a number of contenders that appear to be coveting his services:

So unless he just misses Kansas City and wants to return, the chances of him returning are probably pretty slim. It makes sense that he would want another chance at October baseball, especially since he has never played in a World Series.

Credit: Dylan Buell / Getty Images

While Soria would be a good fit in Kansas City’s bullpen, the likelihood of that happening appears to be pretty low. Luckily for the Royals, there are a number of relievers out on the market and many could be had within their budget. 

Do I think the Royals should go after his services? I think he would be a good option but he fits the Royals needs more than the Royals fit his. The idea of Soria ending his career in Kansas City feels like a nice touch and maybe something to revisit in a year or two. But for now, I wouldn’t count on there being a reunion. In other words, the third time is probably not a charm.

Putting the Cart Before the Horse

Sometimes you can see moves happening from a mile away. It was well known for years that Dayton Moore had a fondness for former Atlanta Braves outfielder Jeff Francoeur, all the way back to his days in the Atlanta front office. So when the Royals signed Frenchy to a deal in late 2010, it was a shock to literally no one. 

So it shouldn’t have been a surprise last week when the Kansas City Royals hired former St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny as special adviser for player development. The rumors of Matheny being brought into the fold go back a few months, as it was first brought up by Derrick Goold in August. Goold had this to say just last week after the hiring:

    


Matheny, 48, will take part in working within the Royals’ organization and the role will also have a scouting aspect to it, he said. Before becoming the Cardinals’ manager for the 2012 season, Matheny worked as a special assignments official for the Cardinals and spent time during spring training and the season working with the organization’s young catchers. Matheny won seven Gold Gloves during his 13-year playing career in the majors.

So in a lot of ways, we’ve been preparing for this move for quite awhile. Would anticipate be a better word? Probably not, since Matheny did not leave St. Louis with high praise. Our own Max Rieper covered many of the issues associated with Matheny’s time as Cardinals manager earlier this week and I touched on some of the problems he created about a month ago when discussing replacements for Ned Yost.    

So this move isn’t the most popular for Royals fans, but it also feels like a knee-jerk reaction to something that hasn’t even happened. The thinking is that while Matheny has only been hired as a “Special Adviser”, the true purpose for the Royals to bring him in is to make him the replacement for Yost, whenever he decides to finally hang it up. Call it a “Manager in Waiting”.

It’s easy to see why people have connected the dots. When Yost was brought in, he was also hired as a “Special Adviser”. He also had major league managerial experience. He was also someone that Moore spoke very highly of, just as he did with Matheny: 


“This is a great opportunity to have Mike become a member of our organization,” said Royals general manager Dayton Moore in a statement. “It’s always been our policy to hire the best baseball people we can and this is a perfect example of that.”

So it is easy to see why almost everyone has instantly assumed that Matheny will be the next Kansas City manager. But the truth is that this is all speculation and it even feels like people are jumping to conclusions.

Let’s start with the obvious: Ned Yost is still the manager of this team. That will probably continue to be the case until he doesn’t want the job anymore. From the outside looking in, that appears to be when the 2019 season concludes, but for all we know it could go on past that. The one thing we can probably place money on is that no one will be uprooting Yost from his seat except for Ned. 

There are also a couple of very viable options already on the Royals coaching staff that could replace Yost. Bench coach Dale Sveum, bullpen coach Vance Wilson and catching/quality control coach Pedro Grifol have been mentioned in the past as possible successors to Ned and all three have been in the organization for a number of years. In fact, after the 2017 campaign this statement was made by Yost after the coaching staff shake-up:


“We feel like we’ve got the right people to take over for me,” Yost indicated. “We’re not bringing someone in.”

Now, this comment was made over a year ago and things change. I’ve even made the comment in the past that sometimes people change their mind and decide to go in a different direction, even if they felt differently a month, a week or a day earlier. An organization can change their mind and often do based off of where they feel the direction of the on-field product is headed.  

That being said, it also appears that the Royals have discussed Ned’s replacement for awhile now and have someone in mind for the job. Considering that Dayton has the highest of respect for Yost and the years he has spent in baseball, it is easy to see Moore taking Yost’s recommendation under the highest of consideration. 

Along those same lines, it would make sense for the front office to also take the consideration of some of the veterans on the roster and who they feel would be a great fit as manager. Grifol has been a name bandied about these last couple of years as a candidate and he is someone the players respect and look up to. You don’t have to let the players choose the new manager, but allowing a few of them some input might not be the worst idea when the future of the team is in consideration.

Credit:  Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

One other item to consider is the effect that time could have on this situation. Matheny has been in baseball for a number of years and I’m sure still has a number of friends within the game. It is not out of the realm of possibility to see someone hire him as a coach somewhere, if that is something he desires.

Back in the day he was a great defensive catcher and it is easy to picture a team wanting him to come in and work with their young backstops. While he might have had a rough time communicating with some of his players when he was managing, it is possible that if you take the pressure of that job out of the situation, he could flourish with more one on one teaching. 

I could even see a team wanting him as a bench coach. Now before you snicker at that thought, remember how Trey Hillman did in his time as Royals manager and then remember that he eventually became the bench coach for both the Dodgers and the Astros. So yes, weirder things could happen.

The point of all of this is that there are no guarantees that Mike Matheny will be the next Kansas City manager. There is still quite a bit of time before that position is even open and things could drastically change between now and then. 

For all we know, Matheny was simply brought in as a fallback in case their first option becomes unavailable. Maybe he simply is just being brought in as an adviser and that is the only interest the organization has in him. Worrying about “what might happen” is dangerous and takes the focus away from the now and then.

So for now, don’t worry too much about Matheny being in the organization. As much as some of us don’t want him anywhere near the managerial position, for now he isn’t. That is where your focus should be. Don’t want to believe me? Then take the words of a man who has covered the team for quite a long time, Jeffrey Flanagan of MLB.com:  

In Flanny we trust. Now go on and worry about anything else but Mike Matheny. Trust me, it will help your sanity.

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