Commentary

Kansas City faces tough decision

If Bubba Starling is there at No. 5, can Royals pass on the five-tool local legend?

Updated: June 3, 2011, 8:19 AM ET
By Mitch Sherman | ESPN Recruiting

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The late Paul Splittorff, an iconic pitcher from the Kansas City Royals' greatest era and an accomplished sports broadcaster, pondered the potential this spring of Bubba Starling.

"The ones who are blessed are really blessed," Splittorff said from his perch in the Kauffman Stadium press box as the Royals played the Minnesota Twins on April 29.

Splittorff died 27 days later at age 64 of complications from melanoma.

He continued to study the game until his final days, working on the Royals' broadcasts into May. Those were his passions -- the Royals and broadcasting. Splittorff won 166 games, more than any Kansas City pitcher, and he did it as a smart left-hander without an abundance of talent.

He recognized talent, though, in Starling, the prodigy from nearby Gardner, Kan., and Splittorff imagined a marriage between the Royals and Starling, a sure top pick Monday in the Major League Baseball draft.

[+] EnlargeBubba Starling
Jeremy CrabtreeBubba Starling, who has drawn comparisons to Texas all-star OF Josh Hamilton, is one of the top prospects in the MLB draft class and some say he might be the best.
"He's got the five tools, he's a stud," Splittorff said. "I saw him in football and basketball. He's head and shoulder above every high school kid out there -- big, fast and strong. The people here would love it. How could they not?"

The Royals pick fifth Monday, behind Pittsburgh, Seattle, Arizona and Baltimore. Starling, regarded as the premier athlete in this draft, may not last until Kansas City picks. But if he does, the Royals will face pressure to draft the 6-foot-5 center fielder, who lives 10 miles south of the Kansas City metro.

Buzz about Bubba began around Kansas City even before he starred with the under-18 U.S. national team last summer. But that's when fans of the Royals started to envision Starling in a K.C. uniform.

In the home clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium, team staffers often approach outfielder Alex Gordon to discuss Starling. Gordon played baseball at Nebraska, with which Starling has signed to play football and baseball.

"For sure, I think it'd be great to see him on the football field," Gordon said. "I want him to go to college. I'm a Husker fan before I'm a Royals fan.

"Don't tell anybody that."

The football scholarship complicates matters with pro baseball -- and potentially the Royals. Notably, because of the college option and with cutthroat negotiator Scott Boras as his adviser, Starling will command an inflated signing bonus this summer.

Expect Boras, according to ESPN baseball analyst and former Blue Jays executive Keith Law, to advise the Starlings to start negotiations near the $6.25 million awarded top pick Bryce Harper a year ago by the Nationals. Another Boras client, Donovan Tate, signed in 2009 as the No. 3 pick for same figure with San Diego after contemplating a football-baseball career at North Carolina.

But the Royals, apparently, aren't scared by big numbers.

J.J. Picollo, K.C.'s assistant general manager for scouting and player development, watched Starling practice on consecutive days in April before joining more than four dozen scouts for his return from a quad injury after three weeks out. Starling homered twice, stole three bases, doubled and walked four times in a 14-inning doubleheader.

Gordon has heard the stories. His loyalty to the Huskers aside, the 27-year-old former first-round pick still recommends college.

"I grew up more as a man and a person in college," Gordon said. "If I'd have come to baseball straight from high school, who knows if I'd be here today?"

But ultimately, if the first four teams pass, the Royals control the fate of Starling, whose growing fan club would make plenty of noise.

"I don't remember a buzz about a local kid bigger than Bubba," said Ryan Lefebvre, part of the Royals' TV and radio broadcast team since 1999.

Lefebvre came to Kansas City from Minneapolis, where he broadcast for the Twins after an All-Big Ten baseball career at the University of Minnesota. He left town before the Twins drafted hometown star Joe Mauer with the No. 1 overall pick in 2001, but Lefebvre remembers the circumstances.

Minnesota passed on college stars Mark Prior and Mark Teixeira to take Mauer, now a three-time batting champ and the 2009 American League MVP.

"There was a feeling the Twins had to take him," Lefebvre said, "because you couldn't miss on a kid like that."

Something similar is cooking with the Royals, who haven't enjoyed a hometown hero since the days of Frank White, who -- as a community college student near Kansas City -- worked on the construction crew that built Kauffman Stadium before its 1969 opening.

"You can't miss on your locals," Lefebvre said. "The Royals are still haunted by the fact that Albert Pujols played junior college right down the street. That comes up every time we play the Cardinals."

It shouldn't, Law said.

"The teams that draft that way have gotten in a lot of trouble," Law said.

Flush with young offensive talent, the Royals need a college pitcher, Law said, and ought to take one -- even if Starling is available. Don't misunderstand, he said, Starling is plenty good.

"He's an off-the-charts athlete," Law said. "When he fills out, he's going to be an absolute monster."

But he's not for the Royals. So Law agrees with Gordon. Still, they're in the minority.

Jeff Langrehr, Starling's high school basketball coach, speaks the popular opinion.

"I'm being selfish, but I hope it happens," said Langrehr, brother-in-law of Mitch Webster, a Royals scout and former big leaguer. "I'm a big Royals fan and a big Bubba fan. It's a multifaceted decision, but if he's there, I guess they have to decide if they can afford him."

Mitch Sherman is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at mshermanespn@gmail.com. Follow Mitch Sherman on Twitter: @mitchsherman