Most baseball fans are familiar with the phrase "Three True Outcomes", which refers to walks, strike outs, and home runs. These outcomes are "true" in that they pit the pitcher against the batter, largely independent of outside factors like defense or foot speed. When ball four is awarded to the batter, it is a certainty that he will be reaching first base.
When it comes to prospects, certainties do not exist. Every prospect has a wide range of outcomes between his ceiling and floor potential, with most players settling somewhere in between the two. I like to think of prospect outcomes as the Dream (the player's ceiling), the Nightmare (the player's floor) and the Reality (weighing all the factors to come up with the most likely outcome). Throughout the year, I will be examining the ceilings and floors of players across the minor leagues, and making my best forecast on the eventual outcome. With today's article marking the last for the series during the 2013 season, we'll go out with a bang by looking at a prospect with a wide rang out outcomes, Kansas City outfielder, Bubba Starling.
One number should tell you all you need to know about Bubba Starling's ceiling: $7.5 million. That's the signing bonus that the Kansans City Royals gave Starling as the fifth pick in the 2011 draft. The figure represents the largest bonus that has ever been given to a high school player and it's also more money than any player in the 2012 or 2013 draft received (partially due to new draft restrictions, but still). Despite the record-breaking nature of the bonus, no one within the industry so much as raised an eyebrow when KC offered the money because Starling is that kind of prospect.
Standing 6'5" and checking in at a lean 195 pounds, Starling has a body that makes scouts utter some phrases that are not typically reserved for 20-year old males. In addition to his frame, he is one of the top athletes in the minor leagues. If he had not signed with Kansas City, Starling would be staring as the quarterback for the Nebraska Cornhuskers and that athleticism gives him immense upside on the diamond. In centerfield, he's still learning to get good jumps on the ball, but what he lacks in reads he makes up for with 70-grade speed and long strides. The same is true on the bases, where he has yet to master reading pitchers, yet he's been successful on 32 of 36 stolen base attempts over his first two minor league seasons. At the plate, he remains as raw as someone who spent a good portion of his amateur career on a football field, struggling with pitch recognition and striking out far, far too much. Still, there are many scouts that feel he has the natural swing mechanics to become a 50 hitter (think .270) and there's no denying the elite bat speed or raw power that he possesses. Rounding out the tools, Starling has hit 95 mph off of the mound and was going to be a Division I quarterback so you can go ahead and hang the 5-tool player tag on him if you so wish.
As we'll get into in later sections, Starling is extremely far away from his ceiling and the likelihood of reaching it seems remote. But more than one person has suggested that if and when it clicks for him, it's going to happen quickly and in a huge way. And despite the numerous criticisms of his game to this point, he still has managed to hit .252 with 23 homers and the 32 steals in his first 635 at bats. If that's what he can do when he hasn't "figured it out", imagine what he's capable of if he does.
Ceiling Fantasy Line: 294 average, 38 home runs, 114 runs, 121 RBI's, 39 steals
Let's just get it out there -- there are quite a few things that can go wrong with Bubba Starling. He is a premium athlete, but the same rawness that gives him upside also means that he is farther behind the typical 20-year old baseball player in terms of present skills. The most glaring hole in his game is at the plate, where he simply does not recognize pitches well enough to hit at the big league level. Very recently, BP's Jason Parks said this about Starling:
My biggest complaint about Starling is his pitch recognition skills (read: his ability to pick up the ball early out of the pitcher's hand and react to the offering accordingly). Starling's athletic ability is no joke, which gives him a high ceiling and justifies the extreme bonus he received as a high first-round pick. But I really question Starling's ability to hit a baseball, and that's the one carrying tool that can make or break his career.
That line, "I really question Starling's ability to hit a baseball" stands out as an extremely simple view of his biggest question mark. Along with the pitch recognition skills, some reports note a hitch in his swing that makes him susceptible to plus velocity and quality breaking pitches, and adds another limitation to his in-game power. Look no further than his strikeout totals to send up a red flag on his future production. To date, he has struck out in more than 27% of his plate appearances and he hasn't even been above Low-A.
Sadly that's the one and only area that may hold him back. He's likely to develop into a quality defender in centerfield, he's already average to above average on the bases, but if he can't hit enough to utilize his power or get on base, none of it will matter. If the pitch recognition skills don't manifest themselves in a big way, and the mechanics in his swing are not tightened up, the Royals essentially gave $7.5 million to a hitter that could rename the Mendoza line if given the chance.
*Floor Fantasy Line: .189 average, 7 home runs, 21 runs, 18 RBI's, 8 steals
* If he even makes it and/or isn't converted to a pitcher
Truthfully, Bubba Starling was in fact the inspiration for this series. More than any minor league player, Starling embodies the range in outcomes for prospects. It wouldn't shock me if he's never able to handle a Double-A breaking ball and is out of baseball before he turns 25, nor would I be all that surprised if he develops into a perennial All-Star. That's tremendously exciting, and his ceiling alone should keep him on top prospect lists for the next few years, even if the production might not warrant the placement. But moving on to the pertinent question - what is Mr. Starling likely to turn into?
On the one hand, there is a growing faction that seems to think the hit tool will never play in the big leagues. 198 strikeouts in 178 games between the Appy and Sally Leagues is a ton of swing and miss, and it matches with the reports. We've seen players like this before and more times than not they fall well short of the lofty expectations. Plus, we've talked quite a bit this year about age vs. level and his football background is going to keep him behind that curve that we like to see for elite prospects.
Then again, I'm somewhat of a prospect hopeless romantic and I believe in the talent here.While it may make me foolish, his tools are too loud to ignore and down the stretch this year he made some serious strides. Of course small sample size applies here, but from July 17 to the end of the season (156 PA), Starling hit .316/.397/.522 with five home runs and ten steals and he managed to cut the strikeouts back a bit as well. Small sample or not, that performance gives me optimism for the future.
Even without reaching his ceiling, which is rather unlikely, Starling can still become a quality and possibly star level player if he can hit .240-.260 with solid on base totals. I don't usually like to generalize with players, but a good rule to follow is bet on quality athletes to outperform expectations, and Starling is the type of uber-athlete that can, and will overcome some of his shortcomings in the bat to ball department. Although I am somewhat torn, I keep coming back to the thought that when it clicks for him, it's going to happen fast and be something to behold. That may not be this year, and it may be a winding path to the show, but I'll say that eventually Starling earns that $7.5 million that Kansas City gave him.
Fantasy Line: .258 average, 22 home runs, 86 runs, 74 RBI's, 29 steals
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For more on Starling and the rest of the Royals' prospects, be sure to check out Royals Review.
You can follow him on twitter @Andrew_Ball.
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