BURLINGTON, N.C.—Few college players have their amateur careers dissected in the way that Royals second baseman Kenny Diekroeger did.
The Rays drafted Diekroeger as a shortstop out of high school in 2009 and reportedly offered the second-round selection $2 million to sign. He turned down Tampa Bay to attend Stanford and play for longtime Cardinal coach Mark Marquess. Diekroeger looked like the player that everyone expected during his freshman year, batting .356 with five home runs.
Between Diekroeger’s freshman and sophomore years the NCAA implemented bat regulations that coincided with a severe downturn in offensive production in college baseball. Diekroger’s average dropped to .293 in 2011, but even more noticeable was his decline in power. He slugged .364, down from .491 the year before, and hit just two home runs. As a junior middle infielder this season, Diekroeger hit just .275 and slugged .374.
Diekroeger intrigued the Royals with his versatility and athleticism and Kansas City drafted him in the fourth round this year. He signed for $500,000 and through 15 games for Rookie-level Burlington the 21-year-old had batted .288/.319/.545 with five homers and two doubles in 66 at-bats.
“I’m just trying to get that fluidity and get my swing back,” Diekroeger said. “I would like to think that it’s starting to come out a little bit right now. I’ve more than doubled my (college) season total for home runs in a little over two weeks, so hopefully I can continue that.”
As is commonly heard from players making the transition to pro ball, Diekroeger said that playing every day has taken some getting used to.
“I’ve only been here for under three weeks, but it feels like more than that because it’s the same thing over and over again,” he said. “But I really like it and I’ve used that to my advantage. It really allows you to work on your skills when you’re playing every day.”
In March, Baseball America’s John Manuel detailed the stigma surrounding Stanford baseball and its offensive approach. Pro scouts long have criticized the program for its inability to develop hitters for the professional game, like other big-time college programs have done. Diekroeger chose not to comment on the specifics of his development at Stanford but did say that he has no regrets about the decision he made three years ago.
“If I had to make the same decision of whether to sign out of high school or go to college, given all of the experiences I went through and my experience at Stanford, I would make the same decision,” Diekroeger said. “I was really happy the last three years. I learned a lot, I met a lot of great people, so yeah, I would do it all over again. The experience I had at Stanford, you could argue that you can’t really put a number on it or assign a value to it.
“Going to college, from a maturity standpoint, makes such a big difference. Regardless of how the baseball goes, I just think it’s something that everybody should do.”
Moving forward with his pro career, Diekroeger mentioned this offseason as a time when he will focus on getting stronger to help him with his speed and hitting. As for this summer, Diekroeger looks to maintain his consistency at the plate while mastering the grind of pro ball. The key to his recent success, as he put it, is no real secret.
“I’ve just been going up there and swinging,” he said. “Just being a hitter. It feels good to be hitting the ball hard again and there’s more to come.”
Starling’s Pro Career Gets Underway
Just hearing the name Bubba Starling, drafted fifth overall by the Royals last year, makes fans and people inside the game giddy because of the center fielder’s upside. Effusive praise and comparisons to perennial all-stars have followed him anytime he steps on a baseball field. An eager baseball world had to wait to see Starling’s name in a box score, however, because he reported to to the Appalachian League in late June only after a prolonged stay in extended spring training.
“Spring training and extended spring training were tough because the competition we were seeing off the bat,” Starling said. “I was seeing Low-A guys and some guys who were even higher. There were some tough arms.”
The Royals had planned all along to hold the 19-year-old Starling in extended spring to assess his development. They held open the possibility of sending him to a full-season league if he showed the proper developmental strides, but Starling remained in Surprise, Ariz., for the duration.
“I am glad I stayed down there during extended instead of getting called up to Low-A, because I am glad I made adjustments to my swing,” Starling said. “Hopefully, they will translate.”
The 6-foot-4, 180-pound Starling receives plus to double-plus grades on four of his tools, but like nearly every high school draftee questions remain about his hit tool. Fittingly, Starling chose that as a focal point for his work this spring.
“I actually felt my swing getting better,” Starling said. “I focused a lot on my swing by trying to use my lower half a lot more, and I focused on hitting the offspeed pitches.”
Kansas City assigned him to Burlington of the Appalachian League, the less advanced of the organization’s two Rookie-level clubs, Idaho Falls of the Pioneer League being the other.
At the outset of the Appy League season, Starling tweaked his hamstring, a recurrence of an injury from earlier in the spring, and he missed the team’s first nine games. Starling played his first game on June 28 and says the hamstring has improved vastly in recent weeks, though he continued to wrap it as a precautionary measure.
Showcasing his broad skill set, Starling has already wowed observers with his athleticism, defense and arm.
“He is great at reading swings,” Burlington hitting coach Justin Gemoll said, “and there are balls in the gap that you think there is no way he is going to get there, (but) he makes a running catch over his shoulder.”
In a recent game against Bluefield, Starling made a highlight reel, over-the-shoulder catch on the warning track in dead center. “That was an unbelievable catch,” Bluefield manager Dennis Holmberg said. “There is no other outfielder in the league who could have caught that ball.”
Starling’s impressive raw power has been evident as well. He clubbed two home runs in just his fourth game of the season, while he continues to improve his hitting approach. “I have been getting out front a lot lately,” he said, “and I have rolled over on some ground balls. I’m trying to let the ball travel and let it get back a little further (in the hitting zone).”
Starling looks like he would fit in a big league clubhouse right now. “He is built like a man,” a National League scout said. “That is the type of body you see in a big league locker room.”
The future looks bright for Starling, who could one day team with former Royals prospects such as Wil Myers, and his minor league-leading 27 home runs at Triple-A; Mike Moustakas, who leads the Royals in slugging; and Eric Hosmer, who has hit better recently after a slow start.
“I was lucky to have Moustakas, Hosmer and Myers at Wilmington—and Bubba fits the mold of those guys,” Gemoll said.
Gore’s Speed Stands Above All Else
Burlington outfielder Terrance Gore does not look like the typical professional baseball player. Listed at 5-foot-7 and 165 pounds, the Royals’ 20th-round pick in 2011 is dwarfed by all of his teammates, particularly fellow outfielders Bubba Starling (6-foot-4) and Fred Ford (6-foot-5).
While Gore’s stature may be seen as a limitation, his blazing speed leaves absolutely nothing to be desired. The Gulf Coast (Fla.) CC product received acclaim as the fastest runner in the Kansas City system this spring because of his propensity to turn in 3.8-seconds times to first base from the right side of the plate.
Still considered a work in progress at the plate, the righthanded-hitting Gore and the Royals’ player development staff briefly tinkered with switch-hitting.
“My high school coach always told me, ‘They’re going to make you try it, so you might as well start hitting lefthanded,’ but I never listened to him,” Gore said.
However, Gore and the Royals ultimately decided to abandon the pursuit. “We figured out, ‘No, just let me stay how I am,’ ” he said. “I was 20 years old when I first tried it, and I just said, ‘You know, it’s too late now, and I’m still running a 3.7 or 3.8 (seconds) down to first base.”
It appears as if both parties made the correct the decision. Gore finished his 2011 season in the Arizona League batting .340/.447/.404 and adding 17 stolen bases without being caught once in 35 games. This year the Royals elected to send Gore to the Appalachian League, where the 21-year-old has not missed a beat.
“The competition down there is just as good as here,” Gore said. “Honestly, the pitching may be a little bit better here, but other than that the difference between here and there would probably be the heat. The heat there is brutal.”
This season, Gore has been putting the heat on opposing defenses, as his speed has opened up holes all over the field. The Macon, Ga., native has flourished in the early going, batting .343/.439/.400 with 12 stolen bases through just 18 Appy League games.
“All of my coaches have always told me, ‘Hit the ball on the ground. If you hit the ball in the air you basically give yourself no chance,’ ” he said. “My main goal is just to hit the ball on the ground and run.”
Other facets of Gore’s game remain question marks. He has just seven career extra-base hits in 164 at-bats, and his well-below-average arm may keep him from patrolling center field on a consistent basis (he spends most of his time with Burlington in left, in deference to Starling). Still, the speedster remains focused on what he can do to contribute.
“I want to keep hitting the ball on the ground and getting on base,” Gore said. “I want to get my on-base percentage up, keep the batting average good, keep stealing bases, and find any kind of way to help my team out.”