Starling’s Journey Not Done Yet

Credit: Rob Tringali/Getty Images

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.

Credit: Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports

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.  

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A Veteran’s Role

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Credit: Sports Illustrated

For every professional athlete, there comes a time when they must hang up the uniform and cope with the reality of life outside of their chosen profession. For many it comes sooner rather than later, while others hang on to the bitter end.

For Kansas City Royals outfielder Alex Gordon, that time is in the ‘sooner’ category. In fact, he has thought about what he wants to do when his 4-year, $72 million dollar deal is up after the 2019 season:

“Obviously, I’m getting up there in age in terms of not many years of me left playing,” he said. “I think I dealt with this mentally the last time I signed a contract. It depends on how I feel in one year and two months. Who knows? I may want to play longer. Or I may just want to be with my family. It’s the family decision that I think about most. [Retirement] crosses your mind.”

Gordon will be entering his age 35 season next year and by the time he is a free agent again he will be knocking on the door of 36. While his defense is still at an elite level (10 DRS so far in 2018 with an 8.6 UZR) the offense has taken a noticeable dip these last few years. Gordon is hitting . 251/.324/.356 with a wRC+ of 87 during this 2018 campaign.

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In fact, Gordon hasn’t had a wRC+ above the league average since 2015 and average is probably the best you can hope for from him moving forward. If we are being honest, even his defense has waned a bit, as he appears to have lost a step or two these last few years.

So with Alex entering the final year of his contract, it will be interesting to see how he is used moving forward. As long as no one is traded over the winter, the Royals will have a logjam in the outfield (and DH) as Gordon, Jorge Bonifacio, Rosell Herrera, Brett Phillips, Brian Goodwin, and Jorge Soler will be competing for four positions. If you did your math correctly, six doesn’t equal four, which means someone is probably bound to lose some playing time.

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Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

With Gordon being the veteran of the group and his offensive struggles on full display these last three years, it’s very likely he could be the one seeing a reduced role next year. Kansas City needs to see what they have with some of these youngsters and allowing them the opportunity to play means more for the future of this organization. The Royals know what they have with Gordon and the good news is that even with a reduced role he should bring the team value next year.

For one thing, the day-to-day grind won’t wear on him the way it has in the past. Gordon has been on a tear over the last few weeks (.349/.404/.488 over the last 12 games) and he has mentioned that the time off from the All-Star break allowed him to re-charge himself. Gordon is still an above-average player (1.6 bWAR this year) and in theory the extra rest could be very beneficial for him the older he gets.

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Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

This doesn’t mean Gordon would never start or be used solely as a backup. There is a good chance that he would still get a few starts a week as part of an outfield rotation. It’s hard to imagine Gordon being relegated to the bench unless his offense falls back to 2017 levels. In this scenario, Alex would still collect a couple starts a week while allowing the younger players more regular at bats.

There is also a chance Gordon will see more action as a defensive replacement on the days he doesn’t start. With the Royals employing a number of outfielders either at or below league average, exploiting Gordon’s defense will improve the team late in the game while still getting him out on the field.

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But the biggest value Gordon has for next year is in his leadership. With the team skewing younger and younger these next couple of years, Gordon’s leadership will be invaluable to a group needing direction for the next level of their career. Gordon’s is more of a quiet, ‘follow my example’ type of leadership but one that is harder to teach.

Over the last seven years we have never heard of Alex Gordon being anything but a shining example to the younger players in the Royals clubhouse and I’m pretty sure there is a reason for that. Gordon has always appeared to be a selfless teammate and as he reaches the latter part of his career that characteristic might be one of the most essential.

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While we can bicker and debate all day whether or not the Royals should have re-signed him three years ago, there is no disputing whether or not he has produced at the level expected for the size of the deal. Gordon has underachieved and his contract has felt like an albatross around the Royals payroll these last couple of years.

But that doesn’t mean he has no value to the team moving forward. In fact, his most important role might just be waiting for him on deck. It won’t show up in the numbers and it won’t appear on a stat sheet, but what he teaches the up and coming Royals next year could be just as important as what he did for Moose, Hos and Salvy. It won’t get the glory, but the final chapter in his Kansas City career might just be the most significant.

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