Starling still trying to make good on potential

2011 first-round pick struggled in 2016 after promising '15

Starling still trying to make good on potential

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- No one will say it out loud, not even Bubba Starling himself, but the clock is ticking on the former first-round pick.

Starling, 24, is no longer a kid, no longer a bright-eyed prospect so talented out of high school that the Royals made him the fifth overall pick in the 2011 Draft.

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For years, the Royals waited patiently for Starling, a gifted athlete with Major League-ready defensive skills, to emerge offensively.

Starling struggled in the low Minors, but in 2015, the breakthrough appeared to come. Between Class A Wilmington and Double-A Northwest Arkansas, Starling hit a combined .269 with a respectable .785 OPS.

Royals officials believed Starling was turning a corner.

Then came 2016. After a quick start, Starling faded at Northwest Arkansas, hitting .185 through 62 games.

The Royals, searching for ways to jump-start Starling, promoted him to Triple-A Omaha, thinking a fresh start statistically might give his confidence a bump. It didn't; he hit .181 there in 47 games.

Starling can't explain what went wrong.

"I think a lot of it is mental for me," Starling said. "I got caught up in different things."

And therefore, improving his mental approach is Starling's new mission.

"Definitely this year my goal is to go out and have more fun," he said, "be a better teammate and just have more confidence."

Talk to Starling long enough and you'll hear him mention the word "fun" repeatedly. Just enjoying the game again could let his tools come to the forefront.

"It's been going good," Starling said, smiling. "It's been fun."

Starling's other mission is to listen to his hitting coaches and especially to the veterans in camp.

"I'll keep working with the hitting coaches," he said. "I want to make sure and try to have some fun, too. But learn from the veteran guys. That's important."

Starling insists there's no pressure on him this camp.

"Not really," he said. "I'm just trying to listen to the hitting coaches and go from there.

"I think it's just another camp. Obviously I want to do well and do the best I can. That's the only thing you can control. There's no reason to worry about it.

"And it's great to be around the older guys and learn from them. That's the biggest thing about being here -- watch what they do and enjoy yourself."

Jeffrey Flanagan has covered the Royals since 1991, and for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter @FlannyMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.