Bubba Starling seemed to be destined for a breakthrough season in 2018.
Kansas City’s 2011 first-round draft pick, a former Nebraska football recruit, was in the midst of a career year with Omaha in 2017 when his summer was interrupted by a torn oblique muscle he suffered in July.
Starling was hoping to pick up where he left off when last season began. But 11 games into his second full Triple-A season, he suffered another oblique injury. He endured setbacks during his rehabilitation process and missed nearly the whole summer. When he was about to return, he then broke a finger.
In all, Starling played 20 games in 2018. Nine of those came during his rehabilitation assignment.
He’s back on the field now and off to the best start of any season of his career. The eighth-year pro enters this week’s five-game PCL home series with Memphis with an impressive .358 batting average.
Starling has five multihit games in his past eight starts and is batting .389 in his nine games on the road.
Sign up for World-Herald daily sports updates
Get the headlines from Creighton, Nebraska, UNO, high schools and other area teams.
“Man, first off, last year was tough, being injured with obliques and finger and whatnot,” Starling said. “I tried to stay positive going into the offseason and just kept working, working, working. And I’m still working with (hitting coach Brian Buchanan) and the guys here. I felt good coming into spring training. I felt confident. I think that was the main thing, being confident up there and having a good approach.”
Starling, a center fielder, has two major things going for him right now. The first is that he’s healthy. Injuries have plagued him throughout his baseball career. And the second is that he’s in a good place mentally. In past seasons, his confidence has wavered as he’s struggled with consistency at the plate.
That appeared to change, however, when he went on a 12-game hitting streak — one that he sacrificed, literally, by bunting in his final plate appearance to help Omaha win a game — in May of 2017. Starling, who opened that season by hitting .129 in April, batted .290 the next three months until his injury.
He never got a chance to capitalize on the momentum he was building, missing nearly all of last season.
“It went from one injury to the next,” he said. “I thought I would get healthy and be back out playing with my boys, and it was always something. I’m glad that season’s over with, and the past seasons that I’ve been injured. I’m just trying to take care of my body and see what happens (by) staying on the field.”
There are a lot of people interested to find out, most notably those in the Royals front office. K.C. gave Starling a $7.5 million signing bonus after selecting him fifth in the draft out of nearby Gardner Edgerton High School in Kansas. The Royals have stayed behind the outfielder throughout his trials in the minors.
Kansas City did, however, remove Starling, who has yet to make it to the majors, from its 40-man roster after last season. General Manager Dayton Moore, though, said the Royals were hoping to re-sign him.
That happened in December. Starling, in Triple-A since mid-2016, returned on a minor league deal.
“There might have been an opportunity somewhere else, but I really respect (Assistant GM) J.J. (Picollo), Dayton Moore and (Assistant GM) Scott Sharp for having patience with me and the injuries I went through,” he said. “There’s no other organization that treats players like this. I was happy to sign back.”
Starling has always had five-tool potential. He’s been ranked as the best defensive outfielder in the Royals farm system by Baseball America for four years in a row. The former multisport athlete and star quarterback, listed at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, has speed and a big arm. He just needs to hit.
And if the first few weeks of the PCL season are an indication of what’s to come, he may be doing that.
Starling will turn 27 this summer and is no longer considered a prospect. That doesn’t mean it’s too late.
“The tools are still there,” Omaha manager Brian Poldberg said. “It’s a matter of him putting it together.
“This is a kid that was raised Royal. We kind of take care of our own. He hasn’t done anything to say he’s going backwards because his tools are still there. I’m excited to see what happens this year because this year’s kind of a do-or-die year. And from the start he’s had, it looks like it’s going in the right direction.”
Through 14 games, Starling has shown all his abilities. He’s played flawlessly in the field, with a couple of outfield assists. He’s hitting with a high average and has four extra-base hits. He’s even stolen five bases.
In a home game early in the season, Starling beat out a bunt single, then swiped both second and third.
“I need to be a little more aggressive on the bases,” he said. “That’s part of my game. And I need to keep being aggressive and obviously be smart at the same time. There are guys behind me that can swing it.”
It’s still early, but Starling is seemingly on the verge of having the season he expected a year ago. He said he knows he’s just got to be on the field — healthy and playing. The rest, he said, will take care of itself.
“I know I’ve got to get a lot of at-bats in because I haven’t had too many in the last year and a half,” he said. “Once I can get my at-bats in, and hopefully keep grinding, we’ll see what happens after that.”
1 of 147
April 21, 1969: Galen Cisco, left, and Jack McKeon of the Omaha Royals.
Aug. 27, 1969: The Omaha Royals' first manager, Jack McKeon, celebrates. McKeon led the Chasers to back-to-back American Association titles in the franchise's first two years. McKeon would eventually lead the Florida Marlins to a World Series in 2003.
April 18, 1970: Former Nebraska coach Bob Devaney throws out the season's first pitch at the Omaha Royals game at Rosenblatt Stadium.
May 31, 1970: Paul Splitteroff at Rosenblatt Stadium.
1970: Omaha's Juan Rios slides home safely behind Wichita catcher Ken Suarez, as Omaha's Steve McMillan looks on at Rosenblatt Stadium.
Jan. 21, 1971: Former major league infielder Loren Babe, left, with Omaha Royals manager Jack McKeon.
An Omaha Royals team photo from 1970 and other minutia collected from the remains of Rosenblatt Stadium. The photo was taken June 8, 2012.
1972: Steve Busby, Omaha Royals pitcher.
April 12, 1972: Jack McKeon at Rosenblatt Stadium.
April 6, 1973: Frank White poses for a photo at Rosenblatt Stadium.
1973: Future Baseball Hall of Fame member George Brett poses for a photo at Rosenblatt Stadium.
June 29, 1977: Clint Hurdle at Rosenblatt Stadium.
April 2, 1979: Jim Bayly sweeps snow 11 days before the season opener at Rosenblatt.
1980: Omaha Royals pitcher Eddie Bane.
July 7, 1980: Steve Busby delivers a pitch.
April 4, 1992: Jeff Conine poses for a photo.
1982: Bombo Rivera, Omaha Royals.
May 19, 1983: Omaha Royals General Manager Bill Gorman poses for a photo in front of Rosenblatt Stadium.
1984: The San Diego chicken mascot entertains fans at Rosenblatt.
1984: Gene Lamont, Omaha Royals manager.
1985: Rob Crain, assistant general manager of the Storm Chasers, with team autographed baseballs from the 1985 Royals baseball team.
April 17, 1985: David Cone sports an Omaha Royals hat and a Kansas City Royals jacket at Rosenblatt Stadium.
April 26, 1985: City employee Terry Cuevas spreads mixture of solvent and gasoline on the infield at Rosenblatt Stadium as part of an effort to dry the field enough to cover it with a tarp. The tarp wasn't laid on the field the two previous nights and got soaked in an overnight rainfall. The Omaha Royals were unable to play the game scheduled with the Iowa Cubs.
June 29, 1985: Guitarist Michael Woods of the rock band "America," which played at Rosenblatt Stadium following the Omaha Royals game with the Oklahoma 89ers.
May 10, 1985: Fans in the crowd seek autographs from Kansas City players.
Aug. 8, 1986: Gus Cherry, Mayor Mike Boyle and Jack Diesing break ground for the Stadium Club at Rosenblatt Stadium.
May 28, 1988: Organist Lambert Bartak at Rosenblatt Stadium.
May 5, 1989: CBS pro football analyst John Madden tries on an Omaha Royals cap.
Aug. 16, 1990: Omaha Royals manager Sal Rende gets a face full of cake from first baseman Russ Morman after winning the league title.
Sept. 5, 1991: Construction takes place at Rosenblatt Stadium.
1991: The final signing of the ownership papers for the Omaha Royals. Seated from left: John Boyer, Bill Gorman, Joe Adams, Mary Ann Luby. Standing from left, Rob Knight, Bill Ulrich, Jim Hildreth and Lary Wzorek. Boyer is the attorney for Walter Scott who bought a major share in the team. Gorman is the Royals' GM.
April 16, 1991: The day before the Royals open, Richard Sovereign of Sovereign Painting adds a coat of blue to the patio concession stand.
May 17, 1993: Workmen for JB Construction hurry to finish the new parking lots by Rosenblatt along 13th Street.
April 1993: Warren Buffett throws out first pitch for the Omaha Royals home opener at Rosenblatt stadium.
March 17, 1992: James Huettner welds handicap ramps.
March 13, 1992: Pictured is the South side of Rosenblatt Stadium.
April 16, 1992: The Goodrich family, from left, Nate, Barbara, Ben, Chris, 12 and Paul enjoy a game.
May 25, 1993: Rance Ristau, 3, looks like he had a good time finishing off his cotton candy during an Omaha Royals afternoon game at Rosenblatt Stadium. But Rance, son of Dan and Cynthia Ristau, saw the Royals drop an 8-5 decision to Nashville.
April 3, 1993: Scott Knight puts down new cinders in left field in front of new scoreboard.
Aug. 2, 1994: Aerial view of Rosenblatt Stadium from a helicopter.
May 25, 1994: Grounds crew removes a tarp after a rain delay.
April 29, 1995: Warren Buffett throws out the first pitch.
April 4, 1996: Warren Buffett throws out another first pitch.
May 4, 1996: Warren Buffett greets fans at an Omaha Royals game.
1999: The Omaha Royals unveil a new nickname for the team, the Golden Spikes, which is worn by mascot Casey.
June 9, 1998: Omaha's Mendy Lopez and Calgary's Lou Frazier watch the ball sale by on Frazier's successful steal of second base.
1998: Omaha Royals shortstop Felix Martinez, who was sent down from Kansas City in the aftermath of brawl with Anaheim, sits on the bench.
1998: Omaha Royals infielder Scott Leius plays at Rosenblatt with his son Michael, 2.
1998: Warren Buffett prepares to throw out the first pitch.
1998: Omaha Royals right fielder Chris Hatcher is greeted at the dugout after hitting a grand slam.
1998: Jermaine Dye, Omaha Royals.
1998: Albuquerque's David Steed is out at second base by Omaha's Steve Sisco.
Aug. 30, 1998: Mayor Hal Daub swings a mock sledge hammer at a golden spike that is held by the Omaha Royals' mascot, Casey, launching the teams new name, the Golden Spikes. The Lincoln Sport Parachute Club jumped into the stadium carrying a banner with the new name on it.
1999: Casey sports the new Golden Spikes uniform.
1999: Omaha Spikes' Sal Fasano, right, is congratulated by Ron Johnson after hitting a home run.
1999: Omaha manager Ron Johnson dines on food at home plate of Rosenblatt Stadium.
1999: Front left, Bart Thomsen, and Rick English, back left, Mike Bischof, Kent Therkelsen, Lance Beasley pose for a photo.
Sept. 6, 1999: Omaha Golden Spikes manager Ron Johnson wears a Nebraska football helmet while coaching third base.
Sept. 6, 1999: Golden Spikes pitcher Scott Mullen delivers.
1999: Manager Ron Johnson, front, talks about practice routine to players at Golden Spikes media day at Rosenblatt Stadium.
The 1999 Omaha Golden Spikes. Top to bottom, left to right, Carlos Mendez, Henry Mercedes, Alvin Morman, Jimmie Byington, Jed Hansen, Mark Quinn, Ray Holbert, Dario Veras, Mendy Lopez.