Friday, February 7, 2014

2014 Royals Top Prospects, Part 2.


#8: Bubba Starling

Pos-B: CF-R
H-W: 6’4”, 180 lbs
DOB: 8/3/1992 (21 years old)
Signed: 1st Round (#5 overall), 2011, Kansas (Gardner-Edgerton) HS


2013: .241/.329/.398, 22-3 SB-CS in Low-A
2012: .275/.371/.485, 10-1 SB-CS in High-Rookie

After receiving the largest amateur bonus in the history of the franchise in 2011, and after being kept in rookie ball for all of 2012, it was hard to overstate just how crucial 2013 was for Bubba Starling to prove that he wasn’t a bust. He refused to answer the question, though, as his performance was just good enough to maintain hope that he might turn out to be more than yet another top-ten pick wasted on a high school athlete with immense tools but no baseball skill.

Which is far from saying that he actually lived up to the hype. A line of .241/.329/.398 is nothing to be particularly proud of, not in the South Atlantic League, not when you turned 21 years old during the season. And not when your success, limited though it was, is largely owed to your home park: Starling hit .270/.341/.496 at home, including 12 of his 13 homers, but just .211/.317/.292 on the road. Starling still has a steep uphill road to climb.

But at least he’s walking. The most vital ingredient for Starling’s future success is to get the repetitions he needs to improve. We knew he was raw when he was drafted; perhaps not quite this raw, and while a Mike Trout- or Byron Buxton-level learning curve was unrealistic, we assumed his athleticism would allow him to improve quicker than most players. The absolutely worst thing that could have happened to Starling was that injuries kept him off the field, which is what has happened to Donavan Tate. Tate, who was the #3 overall draft pick in 2009, is basically Starling’s worst-case scenario – he had terrific tools but less baseball sense than the Padres had thought, and thanks to injuries (and a 50-game suspension for a drug of abuse), he’s played 40 games in a season just once since he was drafted. He’s hit .238/.355/.320 with three home runs in his pro career, has yet to get out of A-ball, and is 23 years old.

Starling has avoided this worst-case scenario in large part because he’s stayed healthy – he’s played in nearly as many games (178) the last two years as Tate has in the last four years (194), and that doesn’t count all the simulated games Starling played in while he was in extended spring training in 2012. The only time he missed last year was for a very good reason – after starting the season hitting .213/.286/.354, he took a week off in mid-May to have LASIK surgery, and hit .253/.346/.416 after returning. His plate discipline improved significantly after getting his eyesight fixed; Starling had 41 strikeouts and nine walks with blurry vision, and 87 strikeouts vs. 43 walks with 20/20 eyesight. And the Department of Selective Endpoints would like to point out that from July 17th through the end of the season – 41 games – Starling hit .309/.394/.511.

It’s hard to overstate just how crucial 2014 is for Bubba Starling, because with a really good season he could re-establish himself as a Top 100 Prospect, and with a really bad season he could be written off completely, and his skill set is weird enough that I have no idea which way he’ll go. He’s not a spring chicken anymore, and most observers think his swing is just too long to ever tap into his raw power. But on the other hand, for a kid who played amateur ball in Kansas and was almost 20 before he played his first pro game, his performance doesn’t give off the vibe of someone who’s totally overmatched. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is perfectly acceptable; he strikes out a lot but no more than your typical young power-hitting prospect, and he walks at a better clip than your average prospect (to say nothing of your average Royals prospect). And he’s been a terrific percentage basestealer so far, 32 of 36 in his career, which doesn’t sound like a big deal, but even prospects with blazing speed will get nailed a lot if they have no baseball instincts to speak of.

And then there’s the matter of his defense, which is already major league-caliber. If he’s a league-average hitter in the majors, he’ll be a 3-4 win player just by virtue of his speed and glove.

So 2014 is a crucial year…and unfortunately, he’s headed to Wilmington, where hitters get crushed, and right-handed hitters get crushed more. I can’t emphasize this enough: if Starling just replicates his 2013 numbers in 2014, but spends the whole year in Wilmington, I would consider that a success. I’ve written this before, but in his first crack at Wilmington, at age 20, Carlos Beltran hit .229/.311/.363. Beltran returned to Wilmington at age 21 and hit .276/.364/.427 before getting promoted to Double-A, where he hit .352/.427/.687, and the next year he was the AL Rookie of the Year. It’s hard to hit in Wilmington, where the fences are far away and the batters’ eye isn’t very good. So I’m worried that Wilmington might get into Starling’s head, and while no one really thought he had NFL potential as a quarterback coming out of high school, the worst thing that could happen for the Royals is that Starling hits .200 the first half of the season, and his mind starts to drift towards what it would be like at the University of Nebraska.

It’s in the Royals’ best interest to give Starling as many tangible signs of progress as possible, and Wilmington stands as a big roadblock. But I’m not sure what else the Royals can do. You can’t return him to Lexington without giving him the stigma that comes with repeating a level, and while Northwest Arkansas is a good place to hit, it would be very risky to jump him all the way to Double-A. The dream scenario is that Starling looks so good in spring training that the Royals are justified in doing just that; even if he struggles and has to be sent to high-A, they could justify it by saying that he had skipped a level in the first place.

It’s not an easy spot the Royals are in. They want Starling to be the best player he can be in the long run, but to keep him fully engaged, they need to put him in position to succeed in the short run.

I’m probably a little more confident than I was a year ago that Starling won’t be a total bust; I think that if he sticks with it, he’s likely to reach the majors, even if it’s in a fourth outfielder role. But I’m also a little more confident that his upside is a Drew Stubbs-like career, as a guy whose defense and pop make him a viable everyday player, but who doesn’t hit enough to be a star. Which is a shame, given both the money he was given and the options the Royals had in the draft. It’s true that the Royals wanted a pitcher, and would have taken any of the four guys picked ahead of him (two of whom – Danny Hultzen and Trevor Bauer – have been big disappointments themselves so far).

But look at the four guys taken directly after Starling: #6 Anthony Rendon, #7 Archie Bradley, #8 Francisco Lindor, and #9 Javier Baez. Rendon was the obvious alternate to Starling on Draft Day – the best college hitter in America whose only knock was an inability to stay healthy. Rendon hit .265/.329/.396 as a 23-year-old rookie for the Nationals last year, and man would he look good at second base right now (with the $8 million a year the Royals are paying Omar Infante spent elsewhere instead). The next three guys are all among the ten best prospects in baseball right now. The Royals took Christian Colon and Starling with back-to-back top-five picks, and that, as much as anything, is why there’s so much pressure on the team to win in 2014. While the farm system is deep, the prospects who were supposed to headline the farm system haven’t.

The Royals had seven top-five draft picks in eight years. Three of them were Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, and Mike Moustakas. But three of them were Luke Hochevar, Colon, and Starling. (Kyle Zimmer’s the seventh.) As much talent as the Royals have produced, they could have done even better. A lot better.

#7: Hunter Dozier

Pos-B: 3B-R
H-W: 6’4”, 220 lbs
DOB: 8/22/1991 (22 years old)
Signed: 1st Round (#8 overall), 2013, Stephen F. Austin State University (Texas)


2013: .308/.397/.495 in High-Rookie (54 games) and Low-A (15 games)

Look, Hunter Dozier was a college junior – an old college junior who turned 22 just two months after he was drafted – playing in rookie ball. As a top-ten pick, he was supposed to mash. That he did so doesn’t make him an elite prospect. He’s two weeks younger than Mike Trout, and granted that it’s unfair to use Trout as your comparison when talking about a prospect’s age, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Dozier’s performance last year means nothing at all.

That’s not to say he was a bad pick, because drafting him – at a below-slot price of $2.2 million, lower than anyone else who signed in the top 16 picks – set up the Royals’ pick of Sean Manaea, who we’ll get to later. The Royals had a strategy, and they executed it perfectly. Flip their two picks around, make Dozier the supplemental pick, and he’s a good value. I do like the combination of strike zone command (38 walks, 37 strikeouts) and doubles (30 doubles in 273 at-bats) he showed in his first pro season – but again, he was a man hitting against boys for most of the season.

Dozier turns 23 in August; if he wants to really be taken seriously as a prospect this year, he needs to hit his way to Double-A by season’s end. I like the Jeff Kent comp as a best-case scenario for Dozier; when Kent was 22, he hit .277/.360/.465 in high-A ball, at age 23 he hit .256/.379/.418 in Double-A, and he finally reached the majors at age 24, which is pretty late for a guy who played in 2298 major league games and has a viable Hall of Fame case. The vast majority of guys who reach the majors when they turn 24 don’t turn out like Kent, but Dozier needs to double-time it if he wants to even match that timetable.


Deep Dixie Blue said...

When I saw Bubba at the end of June for a 3 game series in Lexington I was very impressed with the total package. I didn't see him really challenged in the OF but he made everything look easy. He was a terror on the basepaths, very aggressive and very effective, and I saw all of the intangibles you'd like to see: hustle, fire-in-the-belly intensity,and positive body language.

He was struggling at the plate, but to me it wasn't a slow bat or a long swing but a hitch in his hands at setup. It reminded me a lot of what Hosmer was doing the first 2 months of the season in KC. His hands were getting stuck because he was starting with them more in front of his chest instead of loaded nearer his back shoulder so they had a longer travel than normal. Because of this his upper body got a little disconnected, or stuck behind, his lower body. It seemed to me like a relatively easy fix. However, 2 months later I saw him again in Rome, GA and although his numbers were much better, I still saw that hitch.

I think the Royals will eventually get him straightened out, and when and if they do I'm optimistic he'll make the leap very quickly.

As for Dozier, I'd really like to see the org think outside the box and try him at 2B. Even if the range is less than ideal, that kind of power package from a MI is a huge advantage.

Michael S. said...

Both of these are guys who bear serious watching this year. Will Dozier continue to impress at higher levels? Will Starling continue where he left off the second half of the season? Hopefully for us the answer is yes to both!

Kansas City said...

Great analysis. Two very interesting prospects. From a distance, Dozier looks good to me, and I like the idea of trying him at second base, although I suspect there will be an opening at third base in a couple years.

I know there must be a reason, but why do the Royals bring guys like this along so slowly? Why not put Starling at AA and Dozier not far behind.

Michael S. said...

Its easy. If you don't think they are ready for that level you don't send them there to fail. You simply don't want to crush their confidence. I'd rather them take a little longer to get here then not get here at all.

Kansas City said...

I guess, in part, I asking why it takes so long for a hitter, especially, to develop.

But on the Royals situation with Starling and Dozier, if it is harder to hit at Wilmington than at N.W. Arkansas, why not move them up to N.W. Arkansas?

John said...

It's a different type of difficulty. Wilmington is tough to hit in because of the characteristics of the ballpark. It's a park where the ball doesn't carry well, there's a poor "batter's eye" behind the mound, and it has a huge foul territory that costs hitters a lot of at-bats to foulouts. It's also in a league that favors the pitcher in general.

The NW Arkansas ballpark and league are very favorable to hitting, but there, you're facing Double-A pitching, which is far superior in quality to A-ball pitching. The biggest difference between A and AA is the quality of the pitching.

The reason you don't treat the two situations as equivalent is because a young player might not be ready to handle Double-A pitching yet; in particular, he may struggle against pitchers who have superior command of their breaking pitches. As tough as Wilmington is, the pitchers in that league are a lot less tough.

With that said, I don't buy into the argument about "crushing their confidence." If a young player can't bounce back from failure, he doesn't have what it takes to begin with. All players experience a failure at some point in pro baseball. The great ones learn from it, they're not crushed by it.

Kansas City said...

Thanks for your thoughts. It seems that the development path of a baseball player is just something that has evolved over time and, in most cases, it probably is a necessary journey, even though an outsider wonders why not rush a Starling or Dozier and see what happens.

Unknown said...

OK, let's get into the nuts and bolts of this. We are into Spring Training mode now. If I remember correctly, owners Glass (plural) said they would exceed payroll for something that would put the Royals "over the top". May I suggest Ervin Santana? One year/$10M. Prove that you can duplicate last year, and we all benefit.

Jayboid said...

My large 2 cents

Santana needs to change his evil


My 5 decades of watching MLB with out a doubt my largest disappointment is the economics of the game.

1. Good grief just the money KC has tied up in Bubba. Learned to like Ervin, but have to believe GMDM is hiding/shading the truth when speaking of Santana.

It's the money, economics in play. Plain and simple.

Think this separates KC, Pitt, Milwaukee, we fans are not begging the owners to toss money at anything that moves.

In fact nobody is willing to give Santana a long term deal. Not even a 3 for 60, 3 for 55, nope.

Simply look at his record. Seen too many max effort pitchers from great to average have year in year out similar seasons. Effort.

In the not too distant past, a guy like Santana being comfy and a park to match his skills in KC, would sign. Sign for his own interest, sign to have a long career.

Happened all the time. Also, players were not so chummy chummy and moving to another team often was stressful.

Could you imagine George Brett and Gregg Nettles sharing a sushi plate in pinstripes, or Royal Blue? Decades later, if you see them in the same room, I'd give them plenty of space.

Just think, with the staff potential we have now, and say Ervin does sign?

What if Santana has his normal cyclical historic bad year? Does Yost have the nads to sit him? Heck dumb speculation, Yost may hit him second in the lineup.

Talk about a clubhouse distraction. Santana in a free agent year too. Boy Howdy, tempers and agents would explode for sure. Enough to put Chen in a bad mood.

The Royals offered Ervin a legit one year deal. Not sure he wanted another year of max effort. Ex. See Albert LT KC Chiefs.

Doubt the offer is still on the table for Santana.

A tip o hat to Rany and this great blog, a real bargain free!

2.Economics as in just so so much money, players, ballparks, attending games, coaches, paying to listen to games, even minor league games can be pricey.

Especially the cost of attending MLB and sitting in good seats. Yes, a vice of mine, I like to sit close to the field.

Although maybe too tough on the minors. A local hotel in Springdale Ark. rhymes with Bolliday Din has given us fine Nats tickets the two times we stayed. Lower price concessions as well, free parking too. Tulsa games sometimes have buck beer night, nuff said.

Not sure about Omaha, hope to check AAA out this year. How is the Omaha experience?