For better or for worse, whether Bubba Starling winds up in the Hall of Fame or winds up ahead of Roscoe Crosby on the list of “Five-Tool High School Outfielders Who Went Bust” – he is a Kansas City story now. The highest-drafted high school player in the history of the state of Kansas, and the highest-drafted player of any sort from the Kansas City area, was selected by his hometown team. With the fifth pick in a loaded draft, the Royals bypassed numerous other options, including Baseball America’s consensus #1 prospect in the draft, Anthony Rendon, in order to take the local kid.
It’s a fairy tale story, even if we’re still on chapter one, and even if we have no idea whether the story has a Disney ending or a Tim Burton one. Decades from now, stories will still be written about the day the local kid fell in love with the local team, and the team fell in love with him, and how these two entities were destined to wind up together in lifelong bliss or heartbreak or War of the Roses-like acrimony or however the story turns out.
What might be lost to history, or buried as an inconvenient truth, is this: the Royals didn’t really want Bubba Starling. He wasn’t the love of their life; he was their BFF who was still standing there when all their true loves were spoken for.
The Royals will never state this publicly, but multiple sources – most recent Baseball America’s Jim Callis, who joined me on my radio show last Thursday – have indicated that the Royals had their eye on four players, and Starling wasn’t one of them. Eyeing their short-term needs for starting pitching, the Royals wanted a close-to-the-majors pitcher. By that, I mean they wanted a college pitcher or an unusually polished high school pitcher (cf. Zack Greinke) who might be ready for the majors within two years.
There were three elite collegiate pitchers in this draft, UCLA’s Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer, and Virginia left-hander Danny Hultzen. Meanwhile, Dylan Bundy emerged out of an Oklahoma high school with the rare combination of power stuff and uncanny poise for an 18-year-old kid. The Royals drafted fifth, and until 15 minutes before their pick, they were fairly certain they were drafting one of these four guys.
And then the Mariners, who were widely presumed to have their eye on Rendon (and if not Rendon, a high school hitter like Starling or Francisco Lindor), blew up everyone’s draft board by taking Hultzen. The Pirates had already selected Cole #1 overall; Arizona and Baltimore followed with Bauer and Bundy. Drafting fifth, the Royals had their eye on four pitchers. For the first time in the history of the draft, pitchers were selected with each of the first four picks. Figures.
So no, Bubba Starling wasn’t the player the Royals had pined for all season long. But man, he is one hell of a consolation prize.
This was not a charity pick, or a selection made by the team’s marketing department. Bubba Starling was pretty clearly one of the top five talents in the draft. At least one analyst, my friend Joe Sheehan (and with the caveat that Joe isn’t a draft expert), felt Starling should have been the #1 pick overall. The fact that Starling went to high school 40 miles away from Kauffman Stadium is a wonderful fringe benefit, but I doubt that factored into the pick in any significant way.
In the history of the franchise, the Royals have drafted only two players who have gone on to display true five-tool talent in the major leagues. The first was Bo Jackson, and I’m stretching the definition of “five-tool” with Bo, because one of the five tools is hitting for average, and not even Art Stewart probably thought Bo would make enough contact to be more than a 50 hitter. (I’m using the 20-80 scouting scale here, where 50 is major-league average.)
But I’m listing Bo anyway, because when he was drafted, he had legitimate 80 power. A tool of “80” is absolutely elite; there might not be ten players in the major leagues with 80 power at any time. Bo also had 80 speed. He also had an 80 arm. If I understand things correctly, Bo Jackson is the only player of the draft era who had an 80 in all three of those categories. He was a freak when he was drafted in 1986, and he’d be a freak today.
(While Bo is the only player with 80 power/speed/arm, he’s not the only guy with an 80 grade for three of the five tools. Call me crazy, but when Ichiro was a rookie you could argue he had an 80 hit tool (he led the league in batting average), 80 speed (he led the league in steals), an 80 arm (ask Terrence Long), and an 80 glove (he won a Gold Glove as a right fielder). That’s pretty damn impressive.)
The other five-tool talent, who did a much better job of actualizing his tools than Bo did, was Carlos Beltran. I don’t know that any of Beltran’s tools were 80-grade, but he was an above-average hitter and well above average in the other four categories.
Bubba Starling has a chance to be the third. Even those draft experts who didn’t think he was the best player in the draft agree that he had the highest upside in the draft. He has crazy power, well above-average speed, terrific defensive instincts, a cannon for an arm. There’s nothing he can’t do on a baseball field.
Of course, most of the baseball fields he’s played on have been in Kansas, and meaning no disrespect to my homeland, many of the pitchers he faced in high school would struggle to make the JV team in southern California. The history of the draft is littered with high school outfielders who could run like the wind, hit balls into parking lots, got drafted in the top half of the first round – and whose knees buckled the first time they saw a professional-grade curveball.
Roscoe Crosby, the Royals’ second-round pick in 2000 (and who got top-15 money to sign), played high school ball in South Carolina, also not a baseball hotbed. We’ll never know if he could hit a curveball, because he never saw one – at least not in a game. Crosby never played a game in his career. Not a major-league game – a minor-league game. Starling is no Crosby, but he is baseball’s version of Mauna Kea – his ceiling is in the stratosphere, but his floor is buried a few miles under the ocean waves.
That said, the risk level with Bubba Starling is a lot lower than it would have been 20 years ago, for the same reason that the risk level for high school players in general is lower. We don’t have to evaluate Starling based on his performance against Kansas high school pitching. Like most elite high school players, Starling has faced off against some of the nation’s other high school players in showcase events.
He also played for Team USA’s Under-18 team last summer at the IBAF World Junior Baseball Championships. He not only held his own, but for a player facing the best pitchers he had ever stepped in against, he dominated. In 19 games, he hit .339 with a .532 slugging average, and most impressively, his OBP was .474 – suggesting that even against the best teenager pitchers in the world, he was able to control the strike zone. The vast majority of first-round tools guys who don’t pan out are done in by their plate discipline. Starling stands a much better chance of converting his prodigious tools into stardom if he doesn’t undermine them by swinging at unhittable pitches.
Two years ago, the San Diego Padres used the third pick in the draft on a similar tools-heavy but raw high school outfielder named Donovan Tate. To this point in his career, Tate has been a bust – owing mostly to the fact that he can’t stay healthy, but also because he simply hasn’t hit enough to bring his other tools into play. The consensus in the industry, though, is that even before he was drafted, there were very genuine concerns about Tate’s bat – much more so than there are with Starling.
My biggest concern with Starling is a concern I have with more and more draft picks – his date of birth. Starling was born August 3rd, 1992 – meaning he’ll already be 19 years old by the time he signs with the Royals. This is a societal trend, not a baseball trend – whereas a generation ago, parents wanted to get their kids into kindergarten as soon as possible, parents are more and more inclined to hold their children back from kindergarten a year so that they’ll be more mature and ahead of the other children in their class. (This process has become so prevalent that they call it “redshirting”.) Starling turned six before he even started kindergarten*. If he had started kindergarten when he was five, as many kids still do, he would have been eligible for the draft last year. (And come to think of it, the Royals probably would have drafted him last year as well.)
*: I’m assuming here that Starling wasn’t held back at some point in his academic career.
I talked about this on The Baseball Show with Joe Sheehan, but I’m willing to bet – and would love for someone to do the research – that high school players taken in the first round are older, as a group, than they were 10 or 20 years ago. It seems like more and more drafted players turn 19 the summer after they are picked. It might be a faulty perception on my part, but I’d certainly love to know either way.
While Starling turns 19 soon, the second-best high school hitter in the draft, Francisco Lindor, was also one of the youngest players in the draft – he doesn’t turn 18 until November. It’s worth noting that the two biggest high school phenoms of the draft era – Ken Griffey Jr and Alex Rodriguez – were both 17 when they were drafted. Every high school hitter taken #1 overall in the last quarter-century was either 17 or a very young 18 when he was picked – Joe Mauer and Chipper Jones were born in April, Josh Hamilton and Adrian Gonzalez in May. Justin Upton was still 17 when he was picked. Mike Trout, who was the #25 pick in 2009 but quickly made the 24 teams that passed on him look foolish, was just 17 on draft day. And Bryce Harper is in his own category.
Starling’s older than all of those guys. Particularly given the lack of reps Starling has taken against elite competition, the Royals have to hope that he is more refined than he looks, because the clock is already ticking. It’s hard to overstate just how important another year of development is at that age. The difference in future potential between a 25 and a 26 year old is minimal. Between an 18 and a 19 year old? It’s massive.
I don’t want to make too much of the age issue – after all, Delmon Young was also a #1 overall pick who was just 17 when he was drafted. Four years ago, the Royals elected to take Mike Moustakas, who turned 19 the September after the draft, instead of Josh Vitters, who turned 18 the August after the draft. The 11-month gap between them worried me greatly – but in the case of those two specific players, the Royals seem to have made the right move. Let’s hope they once again made the right decision that Starling, despite being 15 months older than Lindor, is still the better prospect.
Tactically, yes, the Royals’ failure to land an elite starting pitcher hurts them in the short term. The Royals’ youth movement has taken over the bullpen, and the offense is settling into place nicely – not only are Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas already in place, and not only has Alcides Escobar been possessed by the ghost of Arky Vaughn, but the Royals already had two key pieces of the future lineup in place in Alex Gordon and Billy Butler.
But on the pitching side, the Royals were essentially starting from scratch at the start of the season. The only member of the Opening Day rotation who might figure in the team’s long term plans was Luke Hochevar, and even that is debatable. While Danny Duffy arrived ahead of schedule and struck out an astonishing nine batters in 3.2 innings yesterday*, John Lamb is out for the year, Chris Dwyer’s ERA in Double-A is over 6, and last night, you could almost hear the warning sirens going off on the mound as Mike Montgomery gave up nine runs and four homers in three innings down in Round Rock.
*: Despite leaving the game in the fourth with a leg cramp, Duffy became just the fourth pitcher in Royals history to strike out nine or more batters in one of the first seven appearances of his career. Two of the other three are Steve Busby – the only guy to strike out 10 – and Paul Splittorff. The third is Runelvys Hernandez.
It’s not true that prospects are designed to break your heart. But it is true that pitching prospects are designed to break your heart. The Royals had three elite hitting prospects at the start of the season; two are in their lineup, and Wil Myers, who qualifies as a “disappointment” relative to the other two, is hitting .281/.347/.407 in Double-A and is just 20 years old. But the pitchers…oh, the pitchers.
If the best way to develop two good starting pitchers is to start with ten pitching prospects, then the only solution to the Royals pitching problems is more pitching. Before the draft, Soren Petro had an extended conversation with Joel Goldberg about this very subject on 810 WHB, arguing that the Royals simply had to draft more pitching because, as we’re seeing with the Royals’ farm system, the failure rate with pitching prospects is so high.
I’m not so sure I agree. Yes, most pitching prospects don’t pan out, and the Royals need more pitching prospects if they think they can build an entire rotation out of their farm system. But precisely because most pitching prospects don’t pan out – even the best of them – is the answer really to spend a precious top-five draft pick on yet another pitching prospect who might not pan out? That’s sort of like saying that since most penny stocks wind up being worthless, the key to amassing a fortune is to buy as many penny stocks as you can.
Or you can diversify and invest in a blue-chip stock instead. That’s what Bubba Starling is, relatively speaking. No, he’s not a safe college hitter like Rendon is, but in addition to his upside, Starling plays a key up-the-middle position, and the one weakness of the Royals’ farm system is the lack of elite prospects up the middle. At shortstop (Escobar) and catcher (Salvador Perez) the Royals have, at least, elite defenders. Starling gives them a potential up-the-middle player who’s a star in both halves of the inning.
As for the solution to the pitching problem, there is a solution other than “draft more pitching”. The solution, in two words, is: Felipe Paulino. It’s early, but Dayton Moore may have struck gold here.
The problem with pitchers isn’t that none of them are any good, obviously – unless we’re playing on the other side of Lake Wobegon, some of them have to be above-average. The problem with pitchers is that it’s so hard to figure out which ones are going to be good. This is a crisis when dealing with draft picks or minor leaguers. But it’s an opportunity when looking for pitchers in other places, like the waiver wire. Show me a great offense, and I’ll show you an offense where nearly every player was expected to be good – meaning they were either developed internally, traded for in kind, or signed for big free agent dollars.
But show me a great rotation, and that’s not always the case. Sure, the Phillies’ Fab Four were expected to be great, but most rotations have at least one surprise pitcher, someone who was acquired for next to nothing. I mean, where would the Yankees be this year without Bartolo Colon?
The 1991 Braves, who I’m contractually obligated to bring up every couple of months when writing about the Royals, had drafted Steve Avery and Tom Glavine. But John Smoltz was in Double-A and going nowhere when the Braves snagged him in the famous Doyle Alexander trade. And the veteran that held the staff together was Charlie Leibrandt, who was given up for dead by the Royals after the 1989 season, when he almost single-handedly killed the team’s playoff hopes with a 5.14 ERA. (This was back in the days when a 5+ ERA was grounds for dismissal in Kansas City. Today, he’d be the Opening Day starter.) The Royals traded him to Atlanta for the immortal Gerald Perry – and it turns out Leibrandt had three more great seasons left to give.
The 1985 Royals had one of the great collections of young homegrown pitching talent ever – Bret Saberhagen, Mark Gubicza, and Danny Jackson were all rookies together in 1984. But they also had, well, Charlie Leibrandt, who had been acquired from Cincinnati for Bob Tufts in the summer of 1983 – Tufts would never again pitch in the majors. The fifth starter, Buddy Black, had been acquired as a player to be named later from Seattle in exchange for a guy named Marty Castillo.
Even the 2008 Rays, who won the AL pennant without ever starting a pitcher more than 26 years old, relied on shrewd player acquisition more than development to build their rotation. Their only two homegrown starters were James Shields (16th round pick) and Andy Sonnanstine (13th round pick). Matt Garza was acquired in the blockbuster deal that sent Delmon Young – who had just finished second in the Rookie of the Year vote at the age of 21 – to Minnesota. Edwin Jackson had been pilfered from the Dodgers for a couple of middling relievers in Danys Baez and Lance Carter. And Scott Kazmir had been stolen…well, “stolen” isn’t the right word. I’d say “taken at gunpoint”, but the Mets were pointing the gun at themselves. Anyway, the Rays got Kazmir for Victor Zambrano in the greatest WTF? trade of the 21st century.
The point is that while it’s great if you can build a rotation entirely from within, a failure to do so isn’t damning, so long as you can find a starter or two off the waiver wire or trade for them on the cheap.
Moore has certainly tried to find diamonds in the rough for his pitching staff, and in the bullpen he’s done great work – Joakim Soria was a Rule 5 pick obviously, and Robinson Tejeda was picked up off the waiver wire. But he let Jorge de la Rosa slip through his fingers, and while it took a few seasons, de la Rosa blossomed into an above-average starter with the Rockies (before blowing out his elbow this year.) But in Paulino, Moore might have finally found the gem he’s been looking for in the starting rotation.
Look, if Cole or Bauer or Bundy had been available, I would have preferred them to Starling. (Not so much Hultzen, who’s a safe, polished lefty without much upside. I’m not sure what the Mariners were thinking, to be honest.) But the pitcher they wanted wasn’t there, and you have to let the draft come to you. All things equal, maybe you draft for need, but things weren’t equal when it came to the Royals’ pick.
There were two players that stood apart from the rest, Starling and Rendon. If Starling bombs, they’ll be plenty of regrets that they didn’t take Rendon, who could be in the majors by this time next year if his shoulder doesn’t need surgery. (No, the Royals didn’t need a third baseman. But you know who really didn’t need a third baseman? The Nationals, who have Ryan Zimmerman locked up through 2013, and took Rendon anyway. When you have the opportunity to get a #1 pick-caliber player with the #6 pick, you draft first and ask questions later.) But if Starling hits, he’ll give the Royals something Rendon couldn’t – an elite hitter and defender at an up-the-middle position.
There’s still the matter of getting him signed, and yes, he’s a Boras client, and yes, he has a scholarship to play quarterback at Nebraska waiting for him. But the Royals have drafted Boras clients with their first pick three times in the last four years, and signed them all. And while Starling can play quarterback, he’s more of an option quarterback than pro-style passer – his NFL future pales to his MLB one. His two-sport status allows the Royals to spread out his bonus over five years. Expect him to sign a few minutes before the deadline on August 15th. I predict a bonus of between $7 and $7.5 million – the highest draft bonus in franchise history. I also predict that he will not get a major-league contract that would put him on the 40-man roster, which is important given that the roster is stuffed to the gills as is.
As for the rest of the story, we’ll just have to wait and see. As Alex Gordon can attest, when a player signs with his local team, not even an elite minor league career guarantees a happy marriage. As Jeff Francoeur can attest, not even a standout rookie season can offer protection against a nasty break-up. I have no doubt that Starling and the Royals will have their ups and downs, they’ll make mistakes and have regrets. All relationships do. But I choose to believe that they just might live happily ever after. What can I say? I’m a sucker for fairy tale endings.
The Royals got back to their roots after picking Starling, selecting high school players with each of their first five picks. After Starling, they took Cameron Gallagher, a prep catcher out of Pennsylvania; Bryan Brickhouse, a pitcher from the same Texas high school as rookie Kyle Drabek and last year’s #2 overall pick Jameson Taillon; a short but athletic right-hander from Florida named Kyle Smith, and a power-hitting shortstop from Texas named Patrick Leonard.
The Royals’ draft was most notable for not being notable. In the last three drafts, the Royals took advantage of other team’s penurious ways to grab players with signability issues in the middle rounds. In 2008, they took Tim Melville, a first-round talent, in the fourth round, and gave him $1.25 million to sign. In 2009, they grabbed Wil Myers (who they almost took with their first pick) in the third round and gave him $2 million; they took borderline first-rounder Chris Dwyer in the fourth round and gave him $1.45 million. Last year, they gave second-rounder Brett Eibner $1.25 million, and they snagged local high school right-hander Jason Adam in the fifth round, paying him $800,000 to sign.
This year, then, was conspicuous in that there were no eye-catching draft picks of players who deserved to go higher on talent alone. I’m not blaming the Royals for that necessarily; they’ve shown their willingness to pay big bucks to players they felt were deserving in the past, and it’s not like Starling was a signability pick. As more and more teams get religion about the draft and realize how foolish it is to draft a lesser player in order to save a few hundred grand, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to draft elite talents in the later rounds to begin with. True, the Royals could have taken someone like high school lefty Daniel Norris with their second pick; Norris was a first-round talent who reportedly wanted $3.9 million to sign. But given their track record, the Royals deserve the benefit of the doubt that they passed on Norris not because they couldn’t afford him, but simply because they wanted Gallagher more.
The one player who might have gotten away, through no fault of the Royals, is Jason Esposito. Esposito, you might recall, reportedly had a deal in place to sign with the Royals out of high school after the Royals took him in the 7th round in 2008. He (allegedly) agreed to sign for $1.5 million, then had cold feet after the draft and elected to attend Vanderbilt instead. He went into this season as a potential top-15 pick, but struggled a little with the bat and was expected to go in the supplemental first round.
Instead, he made it all the way to the second round – where the Orioles, drafting one pick ahead of Kansas City, snatched him. I have no idea whether the Royals would have taken him – but given their obvious interest in him three years ago, given that he fell in the draft farther than anyone expected, and given that he’s an excellent defensive third baseman, you have to wonder whether the Royals, for the second straight round, were screwed out of the player they wanted with one pick to go.
(Remember Alex Gordon’s two-out walk-off homer of Alfredo Simon last July? If Gordon had struck out instead, the Royals draft fourth ahead of Baltimore, and I might have just spent 5000 words writing about Esposito and Dylan Bundy. This is the Butterfly Effect applied to baseball.)
On paper, the choice of Cameron Gallagher makes me queasy – the last time the Royals took a Pennsylvania high schooler in the second round it was Jeff Bianchi*, and the last time they took a high school catcher in the second round it was Adam Donachie, whose claim to fame was hitting a homer off of the Royals’ first-round pick – Zack Greinke – in high school. Bianchi’s struggling after coming off Tommy John surgery; Donachie washed out years ago.
*: And the last time the Royals took a Pennsylvania high schooler in the first round, it was Chris Lubanski. Before him, it was Jim Pittsley. Oh, the humanity.
Brickhouse is more interesting; he has shown the ability to get his fastball in the mid-90s, but his breaking stuff needs work, and he doesn’t have the smoothest delivery in the world. Kyle Smith, for the round he was taken, is my favorite of these three picks. He throws in the low 90s, but with good secondary pitches, good command, and with more athleticism than Brickhouse. What dropped Smith in the draft is his size – he’s listed at 6’ even, and watching some videos of him online, I find it hard to believe he’s even that tall. I’ve long felt that teams downgrade short pitchers in the draft excessively, ever since the Royals grabbed a 5’9” pitcher with a dominant fastball and curveball in the 6th round in 1986. Tom Gordon was the Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 1988, nearly won the Rookie of the Year award in 1989, and pitched 21 seasons in the major leagues.
While the Royals didn’t get any steals in the draft, none of these guys were overdrafts either; according to Baseball America, they were all drafted about where you’d expect. Gallagher, taken with the #65 pick, was BA’s #64 draft prospect. Brickhouse (drafted #95) was #74; Smith (#126) was #106. The bottom line is that the Royals’ selections weren’t made on the basis of money, but simply on the basis of talent.
Given the front office’s track record, that’s good enough for me. While the Royals get a lot of attention for their willingness to go over slot, which has landed them Melville and Myers and Dwyer et al, some of their best picks have been guys who were drafted where they were expected to be drafted, and who signed for slot.
That 2008 draft? The Royals took Eric Hosmer* with the third pick, even though Baseball America ranked him the #7 player in the draft. With the #36 pick overall, the Royals took Mike Montgomery, who BA had ranked #40. Montgomery was your typically long-limbed projectable left-handed pitcher; no one knew if he would add velocity after he was drafted, but he did. With the #49 pick, the Royals took Johnny Giavotella, shocking everyone both because he seemed a bit of an overdraft (BA ranked him #127) and because a short college second baseman seemed the antithesis of the typical Dayton Moore pick.
The two guys that fell to the Royals were right-handers Tyler Sample (ranked #42, drafted #80), and Melville (ranked #15, drafted #115). While both are still legitimate prospects, the bullpen may be the future destination for both. And after taking Melville, the Royals used their fifth-round pick (#145) a pitcher who missed his entire senior season with a broken elbow, and who didn’t make BA’s Top 200 Draft Prospect list at all, John Lamb.
*: Thank God the Pirates took Pedro Alvarez with the #2 pick that year. Not only because it spared the Royals from the possibility of taking him, but because I’m pretty sure they would have taken Hosmer anyway. That would have provoked one of the most vicious – and in retrospect, one of the dumbest – articles I would have ever written. So thank you, Pittsburgh, for not making me look stupid. Sorry you wound up with the dunce cap instead.
The 2008 draft may go down as one of the best in the history of the franchise – more on that later – and yet their best draft picks were all guys who were drafted no lower than, and in many cases much sooner than, expected. The two guys who appeared to be great value for their draft slot have been the two most disappointing players in the first five rounds.
The point is that shrewd drafting has played at least as much a part in building the Royals’ farm system as the willingness to spend money. My comparison of Gallagher to Bianchi and Donachie is valid only if you think there’s no difference between the crew Dayton Moore has assembled to scout talent, and the skeleton crew that Allard Baird had at his disposal. Given the focus on high school talent once again this year, it will be years before we know how this draft pans out, and years before any of these guys – even Starling – helps the Royals at the major league level.
But if the Royals did nothing to help the team win in 2012 and 2013 and maybe even 2014, they may have done a lot to help the team win in 2015 and beyond. If you believe, as I do, that there’s enough talent on hand for the Royals to contend in the next three years – even with pitchers dropping like flies – then this draft may help elevate the Royals from an occasional contender to a budding dynasty.
Or it may be a total bust. Bubba Starling is a microcosm of the entire draft – the downside is frightening, but the upside is tremendous. Given the franchise’s track record, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt for now.