(Everyone say hello to another new contributor here at Minor League Ball, Walter B. Bernard)
The first time I saw Derek "Bubba" Starling was two years ago as he was playing center field for the Lexington Legends. He was very raw with minimal pitch recognition, leaking horribly on his front foot and many times swinging very off balance. On the other hand, his defense was outstanding and aggressive. You could feel his desire to contribute to a game the best way he knew how...with the glove.
However, I left that game not knowing exactly what I saw and asked myself what the Royals were thinking paying this young man such an enormous bonus.
Fast forward 2015.
At a recent NW Arkansas series vs. Frisco RoughRiders (Game One), I was amazed to see many similar actions at the plate as well as a difficult time reading pitchers on the base paths. Bubba, on a straight steal attempt, was gunned down by Pat Cantwell easily by six feet. He did execute a bunt single but finished the night 1-6. His approach was always aggressive as he chased many first pitches out of the zone and spent the night behind in the count. You could see the immense displeasure in his performance following the game.
In games two and three I was able to see a more polished approach and a glimmer of his near future potential. Two hits and two walks in each game where he showed great patience at the plate and laid off many breaking pitches in front of the plate he chased the night before. He is clearly trying to make pitch to pitch and bat to bat adjustments but looks the part of a complex/Low A player with 5 tools.
Now that is not a bad thing considering he is 22 years old and adjusting to a very polished group of pitchers in the Texas League. Many players look this way as they enter higher levels. But make no mistake, I knew two years ago this is going to be a long term education and a long term process.
I can say when arriving early to the final game, Bubba Starling was at the park working in the cages and very engaged in dialogue with hitting coach Brandon Moore. He is determined to succeed at the highest level and is very competitive and highly engaged in each game. At this point he is lacking consistency day-to-day but by no means write this young man off. No way.
I firmly believe he will reward the Royals with their patience and faith and contribute to that club. Bubba Starling WILL surprise many people by how much he has taken this challenge to reach major league baseball!
Think about this for a moment...this young man has had twice the failure of your average minor league prospect, dealing with the pressure of signing one of the biggest bonuses Major League Baseball has ever paid, learning a game that was truly secondary in his life through high school and never given true daily baseball instruction until he reached the Royals complex in Surprise Arizona. Most of us would have walked long ago but not Bubba Starling.
I have been a fan of thousands of players over the 27 years I have been around minor league baseball. I have enjoyed watching hundreds of players celebrate their major league debuts. But today, I find myself carrying the flag for one of the most dedicated, determined, emotionally strong and genuine BASEBALL players the minor leagues can offer.
Walter B. Barnard