SURPRISE, Ariz. — The best thing about Bubba Starling’s first professional year, for Starling and the Royals, might be that he only has to go through it once.
Hold on. That’s not to suggest it was disappointing or underachieving by any normal or rational standard. It wasn’t. There were highs and lows, of course, but Starling, who turned 20 in early August, generally gets high marks.
The Royals picked him as their player of the year on a short-season Burlington club that came within one strike of winning the Appalachian League title. Baseball America cited Starling as the Appy League’s No. 3 prospect.
“I’m glad we progressed him the way we did,” assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said, “because we saw definite progress offensively. Defensively, he’s more advanced than we even realized.”
It was a year of major adjustments for Starling, a peerless prep athlete from Gardner Edgerton High who leveraged a franchise-record signing bonus of $7.5 million from the Royals in 2011 by turning down a football scholarship to play quarterback at Nebraska.
Starling quickly learned that bonus came accompanied not only by enormous expectations but also an unrelenting spotlight beyond anything that can be imagined without experiencing it.
“It was nice to play baseball all year round,” he said, “but it was a big adjustment. The everyday part of it; the grind. I had my share of failure, for sure. I had my ups and downs, but that’s just part of it.”
The easy part of it, actually.
There was another side to his new status, which first surfaced a year ago while here for the Instructional League. He was cited for underage drinking — one beer, but he was underage — while accompanying a group of teammates to an Arizona State football game.
No other names leaked out. Starling was a passenger, not the driver. He wasn’t close to the legal limit for intoxication. Only his citation became public, and it was judged to be news because he is who he is.
Starling rolled with it like a pro — actually better than many pros.
“It is what it is,” Picollo said. “That’s part of being Bubba Starling — supposedly the best athlete in Kansas state history and being drafted by the hometown team. That’s part of it, and there have been a lot of discussions we’ve had with him on how to handle that.”
The spotlight rarely dimmed.
“The time it really stood out was spring training,” Picollo said. “Especially spring break week, there were a lot of fans down here. Once, we probably had 200 people watching the A-ball minor-league game.
“We’ve never had that. It got to the point where we talked about how we’d control the crowd here in minor-league camp.”
Many were there to catch a glimpse of Starling.
“At the time, he was struggling,” Picollo said. “So now, he’s coming off the field, walking back (to the clubhouse), and he’s had a tough day. He’s trying to figure things out, and now he’s getting asked to sign a lot of autographs. That was trying for him.
“He’s trying to control his emotions because, in spring training, the fans are right on top of you. That was hard. That’s when it really stood out to us that this was going to be a little more of a challenge for us than any other first-rounder we’ve had.”
The Royals viewed Starling as a rare talent with boundless potential, but they also saw a raw talent who had spent far less time honing specific baseball skills, and against generally inferior competition, than other top picks.
That led to a go-slow approach.
Starling remained in extended spring training when the organization’s four full-season affiliates broke camp. Critics saw the Royals’ approach as an admission that Starling was proving to be a disappointment.
Other top prospects, younger prospects, were playing, and performing well, at higher levels. Something had to be amiss.
“As far as baseball is concerned,” Picollo said, “he hasn’t had the game time that other top picks have had. So we can’t worry about age a whole lot. And even at 19, he’s still ahead of the 21-year-old college player who gets selected.
“There was more attention drawn to it this year because (Mike) Trout and (Bryce) Harper are in the big leagues at 20 and 19. It became more of a speaking point. It was natural for that (discussion) to happen more this year than in other years.”
Even so, Starling felt the sting — especially when an injury in June further delayed the start of his on-field career at Burlington.
“It did seem like a long time,” Starling said. “I was out here playing games (in extended spring training), but there were no fans … no atmosphere. Then when I finally get out there to Burlington, I hurt my hamstring.
“I know a lot of people were wondering. ‘Hey, we drafted this guy so high and gave him a lot of money. We want to see him on the field.’ So it was good when I finally got on the field.”
Starling’s on-field numbers were solid but not spectacular: a .275 average and .371 on-base percentage in 53 games with 10 homers and 33 RBIs. What was spectacular were the glimpses of what he might eventually become.
“The things you’d see this kid do…,” said veteran scout Art Stewart, who now serves as a senior adviser to general manager Dayton Moore. “I haven’t seen stuff like that since Bo Jackson. And here’s the difference — Bubba has played less baseball than Bo.”
Baseball America highlighted Starling’s tools, and the gap separating them from becoming skills, in its recent assessment: “To deliver on his immense offensive potential, he’ll need to streamline his hitting mechanics and develop better pitch recognition.”
And this: “Shows plus range in all directions in center field and could handle the defensive demands of the position right now in the big leagues … possesses the above-average speed necessary to pose a threat on the bases.”
The Royals don’t argue with that. Neither does Starling.
“My swing is still a work in progress,” he said. “There are lots of different little things. I’ve been doing it one way my whole life, and here I am trying to change it. It’s tough but, with repetition, it will hopefully come.
“I’m getting there. I can feel it at times when I’m at-bat. But there are times when I get back to my old habits, and that’s when I start popping the ball up or doing other (unproductive) things.”
That’s part of why he returned to the Instructional League, which concluded its five-week run on Friday.
“Football players who turn their career toward baseball,” Picollo said, “it’s going to take a solid year, maybe a year-and-a-half, just to get the football out of them. Just to get the muscles working the right way and firing the right way.
“There’s always some rigidness to what they do. After a year or so, it smoothes out through repetition. Right now, the thing we’re working on with him is his timing and his load with his hands. It comes and goes.”
A year into his professional career, Starling is now able to view baseball as just that: a profession.
“When I got here last year (for the Instructional League),” he said, “it didn’t seem like a job or anything. But when you’re playing every day … gosh, I was out here for extended and everything, so it was a good six or seven months…
“Overall, I think, yes, it was a good year. Definitely. From starting out in spring training until now, I’ve gotten so much better. Defensively and offensively. And I know I’m not there. There are still adjustments I need to make, definitely.
“But I think that will come.”
And if it does…
“His aptitude is good,” Picollo said. “His work ethic is very good. And because of his strength and his bat speed, he doesn’t have to be perfect. His natural ability will take over for him. If he gets to where he’s perfect, then you really have something.”