KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Royals prospect Bubba Starling might not be progressing through the minor leagues as quickly as some fans and observers would like, but the Royals say he is far from a bust.
And the Royals also say they have no fear any more that Starling will suddenly quit baseball and bolt back to play football at Nebraska, where he had a scholarship offer before signing with the Royals.
"Nah, his passion is baseball now, not football," Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo told FOXSportsKansasCity.com. "I don’t think that’s even a concern anymore, and he’s never expressed anything like that to us.
"He’s 21 now. He’s committed to baseball. Those (football) days are behind him now. He’s a baseball player."
A three-sport star at Gardner-Edgerton (Kan.) High School, Starling was a first-round pick by the Royals in 2011. He received a $7.5 million signing bonus from the Royals that was issued in three yearly installments — a common arrangement for dual-sport athletes in the event they decide to go back to college.
The final installment was paid last year, and Starling could go back to Nebraska without having to return any of it. But the Royals believe Starling is determined to make it to the major leagues.
"We’re very pleased with his progression," Picollo said. "People kind of forget that he would be a junior in college right now, so we’re talking about a guy who is very young. And he’s only had one full season of pro ball.
"Bubba is fine. He’s learning and getting better."
Starling, 6 feet 4, 180 pounds, hit just .241 last season (.329 on-base percentage) at low-A Lexington (Ky.), but he did have 13 homers, 21 doubles and 22 stolen bases. He will start this season at high-A Wilmington (Del.).
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"He plays good enough center field now that he could play in the majors," Picollo said. "He’s a terrific athlete, obviously, and he’s making strides offensively. We chart quality plate appearances and he rated very well for us last year, especially in the second half.
"I fully expect him to have a solid season at Wilmington. He’s going to be surrounded with a lot of our top prospects there, and I think that will help him. With those other guys around him, it will kind of take the pressure off him and he can just relax. The focus won’t be just on him."
The Royals are not in a huge hurry to rush Starling through the system. He won’t have to be put on the 40-man roster until after the 2015 season.
"When he’s ready to play in the big leagues, he’ll play," Picollo said. "He was brought along slowly after he signed with us, and that was by design. He simply hadn’t played that much baseball, so we wanted to slowly transition him into it in 2012. And then last year, for the first time he got used to playing 120 or 140 games in a season.
"The development will come. And the thing is, if he gets to the majors when he’s 21 or 25 or 28, it doesn’t matter because it’s different for everyone. Every player is different and every player is unique. No one has the same path."
You can follow Jeffrey Flanagan on Twitter at @jflanagankc or email firstname.lastname@example.org.