Thursday, March 20, 2014

Prospect Countdown: #7 Bubba Starling

7. Bubba Starling Outfielder

Age: 21
Position: OF
Height: 6'4"
Weight: 180
B/T: R/R
Acquired: Drafted in the 1st Round of the 2011 Amateur Draft
From: Gardner, KS

2013 Rank: 1

2012 Rank: 2

Landon Adams (9): It appears that I have the distinction of ranking Starling lower than any other Royal Revival contributor. Let's take a look at why. First and foremost is his age. Now many would cite Starling's age as a reason for optimism, but I see a 21 year old that is coming off a .727 OPS season in in Low-A. Another issue is the strikeouts. Last season Starling's 25.7 K% was the 14th worst in the SAL, and that was coming off a season in which his 30.2% mark ranked 4th in the Appalachian League.

The good news for Starling is that he does walk a little bit. For his career he is walking in 11.1% of his plate appearances. Hopefully, as he logs more plate appearances he can continue to improve on the walk rate and cut down on the strikeout rate. If he can manage to keep his walk rate above the 12% mark and get his strikeout rate down below 25%, he'll be at a level where he can be a very good Major League player. Unfortunately, these things don't get easier as you move up the ladder.

My colleagues are likely to point out Starling's terrific close to 2013 as reason for optimism moving forward. Obviously, I'd rather Starling's results be good than bad, but looking at his strikeout, walk, and contact numbers, it doesn't appear that Starling made any real progress in August of 2013. His LD% was just 13.8%, while his strikeout and walk percentages were his worst since April. 

Hopefully, part of Starling's problem was similar to the one that faced Eric Hosmer when he was in Low-A: vision. 35 games into 2013, Starling did undergo LASIK eye surgery to correct some vision problems that he was having. According to Starling he was having a hard time seeing the spin of the baseball during night games (in 2013 night games, Starling hit just .226/.311/.370, while in day games he hit .291/.387/.485). If the eye issue truly was causing Starling the night time problems that he insisted it was, then perhaps Starling's true current talent level is closer to the .872 OPS that he posted during the day. Royals fans have to be hoping that is the case.

Major League Baseball's signing bonus rules allowed the Royals to spread Starling's signing bonus over three seasons since he was a multiple sport star. 2014 will be Starling's third year in the system, and so fans likely can't help but wonder what happens if Starling continues to struggle at the plate? Hopefully, Starling can overcome the long odds that face him with a trip to Wilmington and he can earn a midseason promotion to Northwest Arkansas. One would have to think that if he can reach the upper levels by the end of 2014, the proximity of Major League Baseball will be enough to keep him in the Royals system.

Paden Bennett (3): Last season I selected Starling as my Royals 2013 breakout prospect. Obviously, for this to have unfolded Bubba would have needed to elevate himself into the conversation as one of the top prospects in all of baseball. Unfortunately, last season he didn't do that. Instead, he dropped from Royal Revival's top prospect to #7. Still I realize that I personally rank him higher than any of the other contributors to this site, except for maybe Nick. 

Last season I also compared Bubba to former Braves farmhand Jeff Francoeur. As time has passed even this comparison looks to rosy. Starling will enter his age 21 this season and it will likely be at high-A Wilmington. When Frenchy was 21, he was busting into the big leagues, playing 70 games for the Baby Braves and hitting .300/.346/.549 with 14 home runs and 45 RBI.

The reason that I am still optimistic for Starling is the way in which he finished the season. We always knew that Bubba would be a late bloomer, but it looks like he was starting to put it together at the close of 2013. In the final month of the season he hit .333/.404/.595. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come and he will go to Wilmington and mash in 2014. 

Joe Cox (7):  It is fair to say that up to this point Starling has not lived up to the lofty expectations that Royals fans had for him after being drafted 5th overall in the 2011 amateur draft.  In his first full professional season last year Starling displayed some of his raw power and athleticism, bopping 13 home runs and stealing 22 bases in 498 PA in Lexington.  Starling does not have any issues in the outfield, as he could probably handle center field at any level already.  

Starling will not be seeing the higher levels any time soon unless he cuts down on his strike outs.  Last season Starling struck out 128 times, which is a strike out in about 25% of his plate appearances.  He does show the ability to take a walk, having walked 553 times last year.  There have been many articles written about Starling's swing being too long, making it hard for him to make consistent contact, and he has not been able to correct this yet.  

Even with a ‘down’ season, he still managed an OPS of .727, telling me that his raw skills can hide some of his technical flaws.  Time is still on Starlings side, as this will be just his age 21 season.  While fan’s may have to permanently temper their expectations as Starling becoming a five tool perennial All-Star, I still see Starling having a floor of a guy like Drew Stubbs, assuming he doesn’t bottom out completely. 

Dan Ware (7):  Coming into his 3rd year with the Royals organization, Bubba is still one of the most intriguing prospects on our countdown.  The 21 year old from Gardner, Kansas played in his first full professional season and by looking at the numbers above, you would think he didn't have a good season, but a more in-depth view of his numbers is needed to see just how much of a positive season Starling had in 2013.

Before the South Atlantic League All-Star break, he was hitting a lousy .221 with only 7 HR.  Post All-Star break, he kicked it into overdrive, hitting .305 with 6 more HR, decreasing his K rates and increasing his BB rates.  One other statistic to look at is his BABIP.  In 2012, he had a BABIP of .372, while hitting nearly 100 points less.  Last season, his rate dropped almost 70 points to a much normal value.  We must consider that his pro debut was in short-season rookie ball and is not a large sample size, as well as the fact that he's just a freak of an athlete.

2014 will assuredly be challenging for Starling as he'll most likely join Wilmington.  The Carolina League is one of the more pitcher-friendly leagues in all of the Minors.  Unless he goes absolutely crazy at the plate, I don't expect high numbers from Bubba, but considering his plus power, it wouldn't surprise me to see him put up 10+ HR for a third straight year.  As for the glove, the defense is already there with Starling.  He has plus range in all directions in CF, possesses a strong arm, and with his above-average speed, can steal a few bases, as he showcased in Lexington with 22 SB.  

Nicholas Ian Allen (--): Okay everybody - let's not panic. There is a ton of pressure that comes with being selected fifth overall and signing for $7.5 million, but there is still plenty of time for Bubba Starling to reach his lofty potential. He played 125 games for Lexington last season at the age of twenty, which remember would be considered young a level lower.

Starling did get off to a terrible start to the season and spent much of the summer clawing his way to respectability. He seemingly just needs some time to warm up in general, as he struggled in the third spot in the lineup (.213/.298/.361) and in the first inning of ballgames (.171/.301/.263).  However, bit by bit, Starling improved over the course of the season and exploded in August. In the season's final full month, the outfielder hit .322/.398/.575 with three doubles, three triples and three homers in 87 ABs.

Despite his early struggles, two of Starlings' best assets never left him: his power and his speed. The Kansas native split his 13 homers equally with seven in the first half of the season, and he stole 22 bases in 25 attempts, giving him an 89.2% success rate over his first two professional seasons. Starling is also a quality outfielder.

I would have rated Bubba Starling as the third best prospect in the system because he is one of the most athletic prospects in baseball and will continue to improve as he matures. The sky is still the limit, and Starling will continue to grow as one of the youngest players in the Carolina League in 2014. I am confident enough to say that in the end he will be stronger because of his early struggles as a professional, and in a few short years he will be hitting in the middle of the order in Kansas City.

Total Points: 98

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