KANSAS CITY, Mo. – As the Royals’ first-round pick in 2011, outfielder Bubba Starling knows full well the expectations of him.
Starling also understands that any time he struggles in the Royals’ minor-league system, there always will be whispers that his next stop surely will be at Nebraska to play quarterback for the Cornhuskers.
For the record, though, Starling, says he’s not about to bail on the Royals.
“Nah, I don’t even think about (Nebraska),” Starling told FOXSportsKansasCity.com by phone. “I’m committed to the Royals. I want to improve every year, and that’s all I think about.”
Starling, 20, understands why there would be such speculation about his dedication. One of the top quarterback prospects in the nation out of Gardner-Edgerton (Kan.) High School, Starling accepted a scholarship to Nebraska during that summer of 2011.
The Royals, though, used the fifth overall draft pick on him, then gave him 7.5 million reasons to walk away from that scholarship, which Starling did.
But now that signing bonus – which the Royals gave to Starling in four installments over three years – has been completely distributed, according to Starling.
And while Starling, now in his third year of pro ball, could walk away from baseball without retribution from the Royals, he said he has no reason to.
“I don’t even think about (the bonus),” he said. “I’m just focusing on baseball. I’m trying to learn as quickly as I can. My goal is to play for the Royals.”
Starling did admit he has missed playing football at times, but not enough to change his career path.
“Maybe last year I thought about (football) a little, but nothing to do with (Nebraska),” he said. “I just missed it a little because I grew up playing three sports all the time. When one sport was done, I’d kind of go right into another sport. So I kind of missed playing football.
“Plus, I wasn’t used to playing that much baseball. You play 20 or 25 games in high school, and now I’ll be playing 120 or 130. That’s a big change. It’s a grind. But that’s the part I’m learning. I’m very happy to be playing here. It’s all about baseball for me.”
The Royals aren’t exactly worried, either, that Starling will suddenly head off to Lincoln.
“We knew the risk we were taking when we drafted him,” Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said. “You always have that when you take a dual-sport guy.
“But in all the conversations we’ve had with him over the last two years, there has never even been the slightest hint from him or anyone else that he wanted to return to football. He has put his mind to baseball.”
The Royals, in fact, remain encouraged by Starling’s progress. In his first full season of rookie ball in 2012, Starling hit a respectable .275 with a .371 on-base percentage. He hit 10 homers in 53 games and stole 10 bases in 11 tries.
“The only negative last year was his strikeouts (70),” Picollo said. “That number was a little high, but it was expected because of the transition he was making. Almost all the high school guys who get drafted struggle a little in the low minors. It’s a big jump. But Bubba is picking things up pretty well.”
Starling got off to a painfully slow start this season at Class A Lexington (Ky.) and only recently got his average over .200.
One of the reasons for the slow start, he said, was physical: He simply couldn’t see well enough during night games to hit.
“I just couldn’t pick up the spin on the baseball, it seemed,” he said. “I was just swinging at random pitches without really knowing what pitch it was. And it was way worse at night than during day games.
“I talked to my manager about it and we discussed the Lasik surgery, and he agreed that it might help. So we did it.”
Starling had the procedure done in Kansas City last week.
“I was a little nervous because anytime you’re talking about surgery to the eyes, you get a little nervous,” he said. “But it went really well, I think.
The recovery time is usually 48-72 hours, but the Royals told him to take two extra days before resuming his normal routine.
Starling took batting practice Monday night and reported improvement in his vision.
“I was told it won’t necessarily be a big improvement right away,” he said. “But it will improve a lot as time goes on. That part is exciting for me.”
Early results were encouraging: Starling got two hits Monday night, including a run-scoring double. That lifted his average to .221 to go with four homers and 18 RBIs.
Starling knows there is concern among fans about his slow start.
“I only think about the numbers when I see them on the scoreboard,” he said. “Mainly, I’m just trying to get better each day, which I feel I’m doing.
“I know the fans expect certain things because of how high I got drafted. But most fans don’t know how hard this game can be. It’s tough to make the transition. The pitchers at this level are way better than the pitchers I had ever seen. We knew that would be the case, but it takes a little time to adjust.
“I think I’ll be fine. I’m not worried or frustrated.”
The Royals, too, remain optimistic that Starling will be worth the $7.5 million investment.
“What happens a lot of times with high school picks is that they are slow moving through the lower minors,” Picollo said. “It takes them a bit longer to get through Single A, but then they take less time at Double A and Triple A. They sort of excel through the higher levels of the system right to the big league club.
“We’ve seen that before, and I expect we could see that with Bubba, too.”
You can follow Jeffrey Flanagan on Twitter @jflanagankc or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.