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Bubba Starling Retires: A Look Back at a Long, Disappointing Trip

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Monday night brought a quiet end to a journey that was long but short at the same time. After 11 professional seasons, 91 Major League Baseball games, and one eyebrow-raising $7.5 million signing bonus, 29-year-old Kansas City Royals outfielder Bubba Starling has retired from baseball. In contrast to the fanfare surrounding his draft selection a decade ago, his retirement in a private Facebook post Monday night caused merely a small ripple on the eve of the World Series, even here in Kansas City.

The announcement brings to an end a frustrating chapter for Royals, one that saw Starling bat .204 with five home runs and 17 runs batted in over 91 games between 2019 and 2020. For a career with so much promise, Starling finished his time in the big leagues with a -1.8 wins above replacement.

The Rise of a Legend

Starling, a native of nearby Gardner, Kansas, was drafted fifth overall by his hometown Kansas City Royals in the 2011 MLB Draft. At just 18 years old, he was unlike the typical high school draft pick. High-school picks, even many first-rounders, are relatively obscure at the moment they are selected, even to the fans of the teams that select them.

Bubba Starling was not your typical high school draft pick. The reason why is because everybody in Kansas City knew his name before he even graduated from Gardner-Edgerton High School.

It was football where many first learned about Bubba Starling. It was how I first heard of him. In 2010, I was in eighth grade when Starling, a sophomore in his first season starting at quarterback, led the Trailblazers into a second-round playoff game against my eventual alma mater, Mill Valley High School in Shawnee, Kansas. Mill Valley had gone 9-1, but it didn’t matter. Starling and the Trailblazers won 45-0.

The next year, I was a freshman inside the Mill Valley gym when Starling, now on the basketball court, was on the receiving end of alley-oop so impressive that even the home crowd could audibly be heard gasping in amazement, because a high school junior just should not be able to do that.

At halftime, I was talking with our principal, who then dropped one more nugget about Starling: “Yeah, he throws 95 as well. He’s going to be a first round pick”

I never got to see him pitch in person, but older players in the Mill Valley baseball program recalled facing him in a regional playoff game and confirming that the velocity was on another level. The one time I did see him play high school baseball, he went 3-for-3 with a triple, three stolen bases, and made two excellent catches in center field.

By the time he graduated, Starling had been an All-State selection in all three sports. He earned the Simone Award as Kansas City’s top high school football player. He had even played on national TV, running for 313 yards and three touchdowns against St. Thomas Aquinas on ESPNU as a senior.

Most importantly, he had secured promises from University of Nebraska baseball coach Darin Erstad and football coach Bo Pelini: he would be allowed to play both football and baseball for the Cornhuskers. He went so far as to quit pitching his senior year at the request of Pelini. He committed to play both sports at Nebraska.

That proved to be a bit of a problem.

The MLB Draft Dilemma

Entering the 2011 MLB Draft, the consensus seemed to be that Gerrit Cole of California-Los Angeles and Anthony Rendon of Rice were the two best players available. After that, there was some disagreement, but Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, Perfect Game, and Bleacher Report all had Bubba Starling firmly in the top 10. The Royals, meanwhile, held the fifth pick in the draft.

At the time, the Royals were over a quarter-century deep into their 29-year postseason drought. What certainly did not help the frustration was that success of the cross-state rivals in Saint Louis, who had won the 2006 World Series and would win again in 2011. At the heart of that was the machine: three-time Most Valuable Player and future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols.

In the midst of the Royals era of rudderless leadership in the late 1990s, the club had ignored Pujols as he raked at nearby Fort Osage High School and Maple Woods Community College, both located in Independence, Missouri. The Cardinals took him in the 13th round, and well, you know the rest.

Naturally, you would think the Royals were not too inclined to let another generational talent leave their backyard. But Starling was different. Pujols arrived in the metro area as a teenager and was much more unknown prior to his MLB debut. Meanwhile, Starling was born and raised in Gardner, just 35 miles from Kauffman Stadium. He even grew up a Royals fan. The outcry if the Royals passed on another future star who was right in their lap would be disastrous.

Whether or not people realized it at the time, the Royals were screwed.

And so, on June 6, 2011, the picks were made. Cole went first to Pittsburgh, which was not surprising. In a bit of a surprise, Virginia lefthander Danny Hultzen went second to Seattle (which also went poorly). Arizona took UCLA right-hander Trevor Bauer third. High-school right-hander Dylan Bundy, a player several publications linked to the Royals, instead went fourth to Baltimore.

When the Royals were up at five, amazingly Rendon was still on the board. In retrospect, whatever draft strategy Dayton Moore, JJ Picollo, and Co. had should have been ripped up to grab Rendon. However, the Royals already had a super-prospect in Mike Moustakas who was set to debut in the majors literally that week (he debuted four days later). Another franchise third baseman was not necessary.

So, whether they chose with their heads or their hearts, the Royals took Starling.

At the moment the pick was made, I was umpiring youth baseball at the 3&2 Baseball Club in Lenexa, Kansas. The complex is equipped with a public-address system, which the field manager on duty that evening used to announce Starling’s selection. That was how thousands of Kansas Citians learned of the pick, including myself.

The complex erupted in cheers.

However, there was still the issue of Starling’s commitment to Nebraska. Playing for one of college football’s marquee programs and a baseball program that had played in three College World Series in the previous decade was tough to turn down.

For over two months, the Royals, Starling, and super-agent Scott Boras were at an impasse. Alas, the Royals struck moments before the midnight eastern deadline on August 15, 2011. Bubba Starling would be a Kansas City Royal, though it cost the Royals $7.5 million to get the deal done. It was the third-largest bonus of the draft (behind Cole and Hultzen) and is still the second-highest in Royals history (behind Bobby Witt. Jr.). Also notable: that was $300,000 more than what Washington gave Rendon, who went one pick later at six.

The Struggle

Because the negotiations in 2011 lasted well into August, Starling didn’t make his professional debut until June 28, 2012, more than a year after his draft date. His debut season at Rookie-level Burlington went well: a .275/.371/.485 slash line with 10 homers and 10 steals in 53 games. Both before and after the season, he was a consensus top-50 prospect. Things seemed to be going according to plan.

In 2013, though, his numbers started to tumble. Playing the first full baseball season of his life, Starling slashed .241/.329/.398 at Class-A Lexington. He fell off all prospect lists.

2014 was spent playing in a notoriously tough park for hitters at Class A-Advanced Wilmington. His line sunk to .218/.304/.338. His strikeout rate ballooned to 31 percent. The season ended in a disappointing Arizona Fall League stint where Starling struck out in nearly 40% of his at-bats and posted a .467 OPS.

However, 2015 represented a turning point. He repeated Wilmington to start the season, but was quickly whisked to Double-A after batting .386 in 12 games. Though injuries limited him to 103 games, Starling posted a respectable .785 OPS across two levels, easily surpassing his .642 mark from 2014. A .274 average with four homers in the Arizona Fall League followed. He was still only 22 years old.

Then the bottom fell out.

Starling simply never got going in 2016. He started back at Double-A and hit .185 in 62 games, striking out nearly 35 percent of the time. On July 1st, the Royals promoted him to Triple-A Omaha to try to jump-start things. He batted .181 and struck out even more. After that season, he admitted that he was about ready to give it up.

2017 saw a full season at Omaha. Even that was limited to 80 games due to an oblique injury. Nonetheless, there was improvement: a .685 OPS that was modest, especially for the hard-hitting Pacific Coast League, but an improvement of over 150 points from 2016. He was on the cusp.

Then the wasted year of 2018 occurred. He appeared in only 20 games due to injuries. Nine of those were just in rehab outings in Rookie ball. That offseason, Starling’s contract signed back in 2011 expired. He would be a minor league free agent.

The Show

But, the Royals signed him right back, and Starling finally clicked, batting .310 in 72 games in Omaha. On July 12, 2019, the time had finally come. Starling at long last debuted in Kansas City, 2,958 excruciating days from the day thousands of strangers at 3&2 Baseball (and all around the KC metro) cheered his selection. He went 0-for-3 that night, though his first hit came the next night.

Though just 36 miles from Gardner-Edgerton High School, the road to Kauffman had to have felt a million miles away. Later in his first homestand in Kansas City, I attended a game in order to see him play in person for the first time since I was a high school freshman in 2010. I had wondered for years if I would ever see Starling play there. I’m sure many others had wondered the same thing.

Alas, the relief and joy from Starling finally making it to the majors was soon swallowed by the harsh reality that playing Major League Baseball is quite difficult. Starling slashed .215/.255/.317 in 56 MLB games in 2019. The weird, shortened 2020 season was no better, as he limped to a .169 average in 59 at-bats. As in turns out, Starling’s MLB career was over. No fans were there to see the end of his career, and I’m sure few knew for sure that it was the end.

When Minor League Baseball returned in 2021, Starling spent the entire season off the 40-man roster. Injuries again limited him, this time to 27 games. The results were respectable: a .258/.305/.557 line with seven homers. He also took time off to play for the US Olympic Baseball team, going 2-for-7 with two RBI and earning a silver medal. That was enough for Starling. He turned 29 in August, and at that point, a decade grinding had been enough. He had already accomplished much more than most.

The Retrospective

Who’s to say what lies next for Bubba Starling? To this day he still lives near Kansas City, residing in Paola, Kansas. There have of course been a smattering of people (probably joking) on Twitter saying he could finally play football. That said, Scott Frost (or whoever is coaching Nebraska in 2022) would be unlikely to want a 30-year-old freshman QB.

Nonetheless, Starling has always lived a low-key lifestyle and that seems unlikely to change post-baseball.

As for the Royals, it closes the door on a painful chapter, the yolk from the egg on the Royals’ collective face is still dripping onto the battered and torn pages of the Bubba Starling story. Right or wrong, he will be remembered as a bust; another in a frustrating line of squandered first-round picks the Royals made during that era.

In addition to Rendon, future All-Stars Francisco Lindor, Javier Baez, George Springer, and the late Jose Fernandez all came off the board less than ten picks after Starling. The story of the post-2015 Royals may have very well been much different if the Royals had taken the PR hit and passed on the hometown hero once more.

Alas, in baseball, drafting and player development is an extremely inexact science, and unfortunately, Bubba Starling fell short of the lofty expectations, like most do. Nonetheless, I am still proud to say that I saw him play in person as both a high school legend and a major league player.

As much as we all wanted Bubba Starling to pan out, he did not. Regardless, I wish him well in his post-baseball life, and I hope the rest of the Kansas City does too.


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Main image credit Embed from Getty Images

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