In Defense of... Bubba Starling at #3

In anticipation of the upcoming Rule 4 Draft - perhaps the most important such draft in the team's history - I've decided to try to start up a new series profiling some of the possible selections the D-backs could make with their two top-10 picks.  First up is the young five-tool stud from high school in Kansas, center fielder Bubba Starling, who I'm hoping will be selected with the D-backs' first pick, third overall.  Why am I so bullish about a player who is viewed as a long-term project and who will cost as much as $8MM to sign (I've read $6-8MM as estimates)?  Well, that comes after the break, where I look reason-by-reason as to why I think the investment in Starling would be more than worth it.

Signability

This is, to some, the most worrisome part about the prospects of selecting Starling.  After all, the guy is a legitimate top football recruit to play quarterback - as well as baseball - at the University of Nebraska.  Past two-sport "signability concerns" like Casey Kelly have been merely average football prospects.  Starling is rated by Scout.com as a four-star football prospect and the tenth-best quarterback recruit in the country.  A more appropriate football comparison for Starling would be Zach Lee, rated as the ninth-best quarterback in the 2010 high school football crop.  After spring practices, Lee decided to turn away from football and sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers for $5.25MM, and he wasn't as good of a baseball prospect as Starling is.

Let me put it this way - would you pass up a chance to be the savior of a tradition-rich four-year university and the hero of an entire state to play pro baseball - with its meager wages - in a city as illustrious as South Bend, Indiana, where Starling would probably play in his first year of pro ball out of high school?  Giving up the glory, the fame, the adoration, and - let's all admit it - the girls, all for a chance at starting your professional career a couple years early?  Doesn't sound like an ideal trade-off to me.

But, as we all know, money talks, and that's exactly why I'm not worried about the possibility of losing Starling to Nebraska.  The NFL is almost certainly headed towards hard slotting for draft picks, so it's isn't as if he'd be giving up a potential $60 million bonus to play football four years from now.  Not only will the signing bonus money for top NFL draft picks be more reasonable by the time Starling is ready to finish his days of college ball, but if his current standing as the tenth-best quarterback in his class remains, he wouldn't stand to make anywhere near the multi-million dollar bonus he could make by signing with a baseball club this year.  Add in rumblings that hard slotting could also be in the future of the MLB draft, and signing now while the money's good seems like a no-brainer.

Bonus Money Allocation

If Starling weren't interested in signing for the right price, I have a hard time believing that a) he would choose to be advised by an agent, particularly one as prolific as Scott Boras, and b) he wouldn't simply come out and say that he was uninterested in signing.  Reports that I've read have reported that Starling has revealed little about his intentions to sign or go to school, but since Boras is his advisor, that's exactly what I'd expect.  Starling is just being business-savvy at the advice of Boras, building up leverage for once he is drafted.

Make no mistake, the money in a signing bonus for Starling will be significant.  As mentioned in the intro, Starling's demands are likely to be in the $6-8MM range.  He won't get Bryce Harper money (don't worry), but he should get something along the lines of what Justin Upton received from us in his then-record-setting bonus of $6.1MM.  However, the fact that Starling is a two-sport athlete only helps the D-backs.  In one of the stranger rules of the Rule 4 process, Starling's football scholarship offer means that the team that signs him can spread out his bonus money over five years.  (As a reference, the D-backs spread out Ty Linton's $1.25MM bonus, signed a year ago, over five years.)

So, even if the D-backs give Starling a total of $8MM, which seems to be the most amount of money he could reasonably ask for, that adds up to just $1.6MM per year for five years.  As stated by a scout in a recent blog post from Nick Piecoro, "What’s that?  A middle reliever?  I’m not trying to run the Diamondbacks, but if they think he’s going to be a five-tool star – and I’m not saying that he is – but if that’s what they think, how can they pass on that if it’s only a million bucks or so extra a year[?]"  My thoughts exactly.

Particularly if you crunch the numbers using (for example) an eight percent rate of baseball inflation, the present-value of a $1.6MM per year payment over five years comes out to $6.9MM.  If we can haggle things down to a more team-friendly $6MM over five years - $1.2MM per year - the present value with an eight percent discount rate is an even more palatable $5.2MM.  It's not the kind of difference that is going to make a Starling signing an absolute bargain, but it's the kind of difference that can turn an acceptable bonus into a good bonus.

Starling's (Absurd) Tools

How often does a legitimate five-tool talent like Bubba Starling come around in the draft?  Bryce Harper, as incredible of a prospect as he is, certainly wasn't a five-tool player.  Arm strength?  He throws 95 mph on the mound.  Check.  Glove?  Scouts remain confident that he can remain at a premium defensive position - center field - long-term.  Check, and check off speed/baserunning while we're at it.  Power?  There are reports that he's hit 500-foot home runs this year in high school.  Check.  Granted, Starling will need to refine his hitting approach and hit tool to put it all together, but what prospect doesn't?  The possibility of having Justin Upton in his prime in right field and Bubba Starling as an emerging star in center field is drool-inducing.

Risky Pick? Not As Much As You Think...

Now, some might point to recent five-tool "busts" like Tim Beckham (first overall 2008) to hi-light the risk of such picks, but really, highly-regarded tool sheds are safer than given credit for.  Beckham himself looks like he's putting things together this year, and could still stick at shortstop long-term in Tampa.  That pick obviously looks bad in context of players like Buster Posey and Brian Matusz, who have been better than expected, but a look back through the history of uber-toolsy prospects is much less horrifying that one might expect.

The most toolsy player in the '07 draft - the year before Beckham's '08 crop - was some high-schooler named Jason Heyward, who managed to last until Atlanta's 14th pick in the first round.  How'd that one work out?  Well, Heyward managed to make it to the big leagues ahead of polished collegians Josh Vitters, Daniel Moskos, Casey Weathers, and Beau Mills, each of whom was picked ahead of Heyward in that draft.  He's also accumulated more fWAR in just over a year than all but one (David Price) of the thirteen players selected ahead of him.

The last time the D-backs were fortunate enough to take a player with tools that matched Starling's, they wound up with Justin Upton.  The $6.1MM price-tag was hefty then, but I'd say that one worked out and we're all happy the club shelled out that cash instead of cheaping-up to take Alex Gordon, who went second the Royals.  Of course, just as Upton took a couple years after being picked to make an impact in the big leagues - from the '05 draft to his '09 breakout - Starling might not be ready to hit the big leagues in 2012 or 2013, but as risky as he might be as a high school bat, let us not forget... TINSTAPP.  Taking the "safe" pick of an arm like Hultzen or Bauer is never as safe as it seems.  Just ask the Nationals what happened they took guaranteed ace Stephen Strasburg.

The 2011 Draft Crop

This is a little piece of logic I picked up from a post on John Sickels' site a while back.  The hubbub surrounding the 2011 draft crop has been huge, but most of that hype has been about the draft's incredible collection of pitching.  Pitchers available in the supplemental round - or even the second round - this year would be first-round picks in other years.  The crop of bats, however, isn't nearly as lauded.  Additionally, the D-backs have the fortune of having a pair of extra early picks, the much-discussed unprotected seventh overall pick and the less-discussed 43rd pick, received as compensation for losing Adam LaRoche to free agency.  Add in early picks in the second, third, fourth, etc. rounds, and we have the potential to add several impressive arms with some of our later picks.

What won't be available in the later rounds, however, is a bat that has anywhere near the upside of a Bubba Starling.  Thus, as Sickels first wondered, "should a wise team trying to exploit 'market inefficiencies' look at more hitters in the first couple of rounds this year, then load up on 'consolation prize' pitching, pitching that is still very impressive, in later rounds?"  Reading this, I couldn't find any argument against this philosophy other than, of course, avoiding obvious overdrafts for the sole purpose of getting a bat early.  Needless to say, I haven't found anybody who feels that Starling would be an overdraft for the D-backs, even at the third overall pick.

 

So there are, in my opinion, five good reasons the D-backs should pick (and shouldn't be worried about picking) Bubba Starling third overall in the upcoming MLB draft.  Next in the series will probably be University of Virginia left-hander Danny Hultzen, the polished starter considered to have a #2 starter's ceiling.

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