#8: Bubba Starling
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
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.