Jim Callis

Royals in AFL: Starling shows significant progress

Club's No. 5 prospect learns from previous Fall League experience

Royals in AFL: Starling shows significant progress

Much as he did in his first three years as a pro, Bubba Starling struggled in his initial visit to the Arizona Fall League. And just as he exhibited significant progress in the Minors in 2015, the Royals outfielder has done the same in his return to Arizona.

The No. 5 overall pick in 2011, Starling signed for $7.5 million -- the second-highest bonus in Draft history and the most ever for a high school or a position player. The Gardner Edgerton High (Gardner, Kan.) product was the best athlete in a loaded Draft class, flashing first-round stuff on the mound and earning a football scholarship offer from Nebraska as a quarterback.

His physical gifts didn't translate into instant pro success, however. He hit just .237/.326/.388 with 348 strikeouts in 310 games over his first three pro seasons. When he played for the Peoria Javelinas last fall, he finished second in the AFL with 30 strikeouts in just 79 at-bats while posting the league's third-worst on-base percentage (.226), third-worst batting average (.177) and fifth-worst slugging percentage (.241).

After adding a bit of a leg kick as a timing mechanism and smoothing out his right-handed swing, Starling had his best year as a pro in 2015. He hit .269/.337/.448 with 12 homers in 103 games, mostly in Double-A, and cut his strikeout rate from 27.3 percent in 2014 to 25.9 percent this past season.

Though he didn't fare well in his AFL debut, Starling said it still helped him.

"You've got guys that have been in the big leagues, September callups, and guys that have been up in Double-A and Triple-A, little more above me," Starling said. "Just talking to them, being around them, playing with them, you're learning. You've got coaches out here from other organizations and rovers coming in, and you just learn a lot from all of them."

Starling is building on his progress with the Surprise Saguaros this fall. He hit .308/.368/.558 in his first 14 games, homering four times after not going deep once during the AFL 2014 regular season.

It remains to be seen if Starling will make enough consistent contact to become a big league regular. But at age 23, the organization's No. 5 prospect is still young and he has the tools to be a useful contributor in Kansas City even if he's not an everyday player. He's a quality center fielder capable of playing all three outfield positions with his solid speed and arm strength, and he has plus raw power.

Royals hitters in the Fall League

Zane Evans, C -- A 2013 fourth-rounder from Georgia Tech, he has raw power and a strong arm that delivered mid-90s fastballs when he was a two-way player in college. He hit .258/.291/.409 with 10 homers in 93 games between Class A Advanced and Double-A this year.

Ramon Torres, 2B/SS -- Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2009, he's a potential utilityman with good contact hitting ability from both sides of the plate. He batted .264/.308/.354 with 18 steals in 122 games between Class A Advanced and Double-A in 2015.

Royals pitchers in the Fall League

Bryan Brickhouse, RHP -- Signed for $1.5 million as a third-round choice from a Texas high school in 2011, he has worked just 43 innings in the last two seasons following Tommy John surgery in 2013. Before he got hurt, his best pitch was a heavy low-90s sinker.

Andrew Edwards, RHP -- The 19th-round pick from Western Kentucky in 2013 can run his fastball up to 95 mph but lacks a consistent secondary offering. He had a 3.86 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 42 innings at Class A Advanced this year.

Kevin McCarthy, RHP -- He had surgery to repair a torn ACL at Marist in 2012 and then again in 2014, one year after Kansas City drafted him in the 16th round. He regained his 93-96 mph fastball this year and posted a 2.74 ERA with 40 strikeouts in 62 1/3 innings between three levels, reaching Double-A.

Brooks Pounders, RHP -- A Pirates second-round selection in 2009 out of a California high school, he went to the Royals in a trade for Yamaico Navarro in December 2011. After coming back from Tommy John surgery in 2013, he had to recover from a lat tear in Spring Training this year before going 3-5 with a 2.50 ERA and 51 strikeouts in 68 1/3 innings at four levels (mostly in Double-A). Pounders has been the most effective AFL starter this fall, showing the ability to mix four pitches while not allowing a run and striking out 14 in 12 innings.

Jim Callis is a reporter for Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.