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With respect to Whit Merrifield and Adalberto Mondesí, there haven’t been many reasons for Kansas City fans to get excited about the 2019 Royals. And to be fair, why should they be excited? KC is one game out of last place in the American League Central with a -84 run differential, and they just traded one of their most consistent pitchers for a prospect who isn’t projected to arrive in the majors until 2020 at the earliest.
So give the Royals credit for calling up Bubba Starling this week and injecting some life into a team that’ll have to slog through the rest of the season. Not familiar with that name? You likely aren’t alone. Allow us to introduce KC’s hometown hero.
Starling’s headline-grabbing choice
In short, Starling was a precursor to the Kyler Murray drama, but back in 2011 he had an equally impossible choice to make. The Kansas native was one of the top high school quarterbacks in the country, and as such, had the road paved for him to just about walk into the starting role at the University of Nebraska.
Starling accepted a scholarship to the Top 25 team and would have been the face of the program as it transitioned to the Big Ten. His scholarship would have allowed him to play both football and baseball for the Cornhuskers, too, which for someone who’s been referred to the most-celebrated athlete in Kansas high school history, seemed rather important.
Only one thing got in the way of him joining Nebraska: A chance to play for his hometown baseball team in Kansas City.
The Royals had been scouting Starling for years while in high school. Now they had a chance to grab him with a top-five pick in the 2011 MLB draft. And it was an opportunity general manager Dayton Moore refused to pass up. But even after selecting one of the top athletes on the board, the Royals weren’t sure if they’d be able to sign him. Starting for a major college football team is a lot more enticing than riding buses between Single-A baseball stadiums for hours on end, after all.
With the signing deadline looming, Moore offered Starling a team-record $7.5 million bonus and convinced the heralded prospect that his future was in baseball.
It would take eight years before he ever played a game in the majors.
Minor league struggles
At the time of his signing, the Royals had developed what would become a World Series-winning core. Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez and Lorenzo Cain had already joined the big league club by then and the window for a playoff run was opening. Starling, it was expected, would be promoted just in time to take over in the outfield as they chased their first championship since 1985.
By the time the Royals won the title in 2015, however, Starling was still being shuffled between Single-A and Double-A. He was 22 years old. The tools that made him such a coveted prospect had disappeared through his first four seasons as a professional.
Instead of parading around town with a championship ring, he was slashing .254/.318/.744 with 91 strikeouts on 30 walks in Northwest Arkansas. By 2017, his line had dropped to .248/.303/.381 and in 2018 he saw action in just 20 games as injuries and setbacks began to hobble him.
The Royals non-tendered him at the end of the season. At 25 years old he was a free agent who was only welcomed back to Kansas City on a minor league deal.
Breaking through to the Bigs
If that had been the end of Starling’s story, it wouldn’t have been all that noteworthy. Plenty of top prospects sign with clubs out of high school only to disappear in the minors. The magic of Starling’s story is the complete U-turn he made when it seemed his career was destined to flame out.
After being sent to Triple-A Omaha to start the 2019 season — 60 miles from where he could’ve been a campus hero in college — Starling began to rake.
His slash line jumped up to .310/.358/.448 in 72 games and with 59 strikeouts and seven home runs.
It was all the improvement Moore and manager Ned Yost needed to see. The Royals officially called up Starling on July 12.
On Saturday, in his second Major League Baseball game, Starling’s work finally paid off as he took a belt-high fastball from Detroit’s Cy Young-contending Matthew Boyd and delivered an RBI single for his first hit. The at-bat accounted for the winning run in a 4-1 Kansas City victory.
The reaction from his family in the stands was as priceless as it was emotional.
This season may be lost for the Royals — and as they continue to ship out assets at the trade deadline, it’ll surely become a harder team to watch — but a story like Starling’s is worth hanging onto.
The rookie has gone from prodigy to afterthought to redemption story all before his 27th birthday. He may not ever become the star player many had thought he was destined to be, but that hardly mattered as he ran through first base on Saturday.
Eight years after being heralded as a hometown hero, Starling came through and delivered a victory for the Royals. That alone is worth celebrating.
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