SURPRISE, Ariz. — Pay attention during a visit to the Kansas City Royals' spring training complex and you'll realize there are plenty of wealthy young players working in the anonymous world of extended spring training.
Bubba Starling's roommate, pitcher Bryan Brickhouse, signed for $1.5 million after being drafted in the third round last year.
Elier Hernandez, the 18-year-old outfielder signed out of the Dominican Republic for $3.05 million, is here. So are two prized shortstops: Humberto Arteaga, 18, signed out of Venezuela for $1.1 million, and Adalberto Mondesi, 17, son of former All-Star outfielder Raul, who signed for $2 million out of the Dominican.
Catcher Cameron Gallagher and yet another shortstop, Jack Lopez, both signed for $750,000 as high school draft picks last year.
When the big leaguers and most of the minor leaguers left to start the season in April, Starling and about 75 others stayed behind to get ready for short-season baseball leagues that begin in June.
The pace slowed, energy waned.
With all the money on the table, some fans may take for granted that a talent like Starling would immediately be playing real games at some level.
But perhaps the better question is whether Starling would have immediately succeeded with a full-season team, like low Class A Kane County in Geneva, Ill.
“I wouldn't want to sell him short, because he's capable of doing some damage no matter where he is,” said Tony Tijerina, Kansas City's minor league field coordinator. “But we wanted to give Bubba some time to do this on a daily basis without any expectations on him, without having to worry about statistics or worry about carrying a team or anything like that.”
He still could make it to Kane County by the end of the season.
Yes, Bryce Harper, a rookie phenom, is two months younger than Starling and is already in the major leagues with the Washington Nationals. But Harper is the rare exception. The route Starling is on is the one most minor leaguers take.
“Bryce Harper was a (major league) game-ready guy,” said Aaron Guiel, a Royals instructor. “Bubba has the potential to be a superstar. It's just going to take some time.”
Looking to evaluate where Bubba Starling is compared to others drafted in the first round last summer? It's not always fair to have the same expectations for an 18-year-old (as Starling was) as for a 21-year-old college player.
The top five picks out of high school last year were pitcher Dylan Bundy (fourth, by the Orioles), Starling (fifth), pitcher Archie Bradley (seventh, by the Diamondbacks), shortstop Francisco Lindor (eighth, by the Indians) and shortstop Javier Baez (ninth, by the Cubs).
Bundy and Bradley have been sensational, and Lindor has been solid in low Class A. Bradley and Lindor also signed early enough to play in short-season ball last year. So did Baez but he, like Starling, is in extended.
Technically, Starling started his pro career last fall in the instructional league.
What's the difference?
“Instructional league is kind of a privilege where we bring in more of our top-tier prospects, try to keep it between 45 and 60 players, and it's more of an individualized camp,” Tijerina said. “The difference is that in extended, they're still trying to make a team. For instructional league, the season is over, and it's more the first step toward preparing for next year.
“The program looks the same — work in the morning on the field and games against other teams, but it's a different element.”
Extended is a low-pressure introduction to professional baseball. The player doesn't have to see his batting average every time he comes up to the plate. Fans aren't hounding players for autographs. Media aren't asking questions.
“There's an element here that allows Bubba to breathe,” said Scott Sharp, Kansas City's director of minor league operations. “He's not being watched every second. He's been able to loosen up a little bit.”
Statistics aren't recorded, though there is a general idea of where the players stand. ERAs and batting averages — traditional measuring sticks of progress — aren't stressed. Innings pitched and quality plate appearances are.
The coaching staffs of the short-season teams instruct players before the games, then coach them once the games start.
Usually two games are played side-by-side, and only a couple people ever come to watch. The intensity is dialed down.
The story this day for Kansas City is Angel Baez, an unknown 21-year-old from the Dominican Republic whose three-year record with Royals farm teams in the Dominican, the Arizona League and short-season Burlington, N.C., is 0-15.
But he's pumping in 94 to 96 mph fastballs and dropping in a knee-buckling curveball and an impressive change-up. He throws four borderline dominant innings.
“I was floored,” Tijerina said. “The arm has always been there. The biggest thing has been repeating his delivery, staying under control, not overthrowing. Now it was like, ‘Wow.' That's what development is all about. Small steps and then, ‘Bam, there it is.' He had a breakthrough day.”
It's not unusual for a major leaguer rehabilitating an injury to play in a game — the Dodgers' Aaron Miles batted second in every inning of both games one day recently, getting himself 14 quick at-bats.
“There's no pressure,” Gallagher said. “If you have something you're working on, success is what they are least worried about.”
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