Archive for Thursday, June 9, 2011

Wristen: After missing on Pujols, Starling is Royals’ second chance

June 9, 2011

Shortly before 7 p.m. Monday, the Kansas City Royals selected hometown legend Bubba Starling of Gardner-Edgerton High School with the No. 5 pick in the Major League Baseball Draft.

It was the biggest draft no-brainer the Royals have had since blowing it by not selecting another Kansas City kid — Fort Osage (Mo.) High School product Albert Pujols — in 1999 despite having an electric bat, a magnetic glove and an instant connection to local fans.

That last part, as savvy team owners and public relations staffers know, can be a marketing golden ticket. What better way to invigorate the fan base of a struggling franchise than draft a local kid — and a supremely gifted one — that already has a personal connection with the local community? What better way to generate instant interest in the team’s minor league system and, if all goes according to plan, pretty much guarantee a surge in ticket sales if he eventually joins the big league club?

Of course, the Royals blew it when they passed on Pujols. Now, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound first baseman is arguably the best slugger in baseball today. The 11th-year major leaguer for the St. Louis Cardinals was the 2001 National League Rookie of the Year and is a nine-time all-star, a two-time Gold Glove award-winner and a three-time National League MVP. He has pounded 421 home runs and driven in 1,268 RBI to go with a .329 career batting average.

A serious argument can be made that passing on Pujols is the franchise’s greatest failure since the strike of 1994. The Royals have been miserable as a franchise since then, and Pujols could have been their savior.

That brings us to Monday.

There’s no guarantee that Bubba Starling will ever step foot in center field at Kauffman Stadium as a member of the big league club. There’s no guarantee he will pan out as the sure thing that every major league club projected him to be. Heck, there’s no guarantee he won’t be playing football this fall at Nebraska, where he has signed to play both baseball and football.

But the odds are good the Royals will get him signed. He and agent Scott Boras will demand the largest signing bonus in franchise history, and the Royals will pay it.

The Royals can’t afford not to.

Bubba Starling is a public relations gold mine. He was rated as the top high school player in the country by Baseball America. He hit .339 for the USA Baseball 18-and-under National Team. As a run-first quarterback at Gardner-Edgerton, he proved his strength and durability while also showcasing breakaway speed that goes hand-in-hand with tracking down fly balls in center field. At the plate at GEHS, he averaged a home run every six at-bats and hit .481 as a senior.

Starling has all of the skills necessary to thrive in the Royals’ minor league system and work his way to the major league quickly.

More than skills, however, Starling captivates local interest and is a marketer’s dream. A local star will put fans in the seats — both at his minor league games, and at the big league level. Fans want to support the guy they know.

In the Kansas City metro area alone, Starling might be your neighbor; he’s the kid who grew up down the street; you work with his dad; he befriended your kid at camp; your daughter babysat him; he dunked on you in a basketball game or ran you over on the football field; he robbed you of extra bases so now you want to see him do it to someone else.

Hometown sports heroes don’t come along often. Unlike Pujols, Starling spent his entire high school career here. He grew up in front of Kansas City. People who barely follow high school sports know who Bubba Starling is. The Royals had to draft him.

Again, this was a draft pick the Royals couldn’t afford not to take. It’s a guy they can’t afford not to pay.

Bubba Starling is the Royals’ second chance. They can’t afford to blow it.

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