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UK basketball player Willie Cauley-Stein is no longer the only former Kansas high school multi-sport star making an impact on the Lexington sports scene.
Outfielder Bubba Starling, a former baseball, football and basketball star at Gardner-Edgerton High School in Kanas, will make his Lexington Legends debut Thursday night on opening day in Augusta, Ga.
Starling was the No. 5 pick in the 2011 draft. The Kansas City Royals were able to talk him out of a scholarship to Nebraska to play baseball and quarterback on the football team with a reported $7.5 million deal.
“It was a tough, stressful process, but it was a fun process too in a way,” Starling said of his decision to focus on baseball full-time. “It came down to the end of it, I chose to play baseball, and I’m happy I chose it.”
Rivals.com rated Starling as a four-star football prospect as a senior in high school and ranked him the No. 6 quarterback prospect in the country.
He was recruited to play football at Nebraska, by current University of Louisville offensive coordinator Shawn Watson.
“He’s a good guy, definitely loved him when I went through the recruiting process,” Starling said of Watson. “That’s one of the main reasons I chose Nebraska.”
Even if he had stuck with football, Starling would have missed out on the opportunity to play for Watson, who was not retained at Nebraska following the 2010 season.
Starling has not kept in touch with Watson since he left Nebraska, but he says he may try to contact the Louisville coach to get him to come to a Legends game this summer.
If Watson makes it to Lexington he will see Starling working to thrive in his first full season of professional baseball.
Baseball America rated Starling as the No. 2 prospect in the Kansas City Royals system and the No. 35 prospect in all of Minor League Baseball. MLB.com rated him as the Royals’ No. 1 prospect and MiLB’s No. 26 prospect.
“The key for Bubba is he’s going to have to stay within himself,” said Legends manager Brian Buchanan. “He’s one of the best athletes in the organization.”
Baseball America describes Starling as having “well above-average raw power” and calls his speed, center-field defense and arm strength “at least plus tools.”
He batted .275 with 10 home runs, 33 RBI, 35 runs scored and 10 stolen bases in 53 games for Burlington in the rookie-level Appalachian League while making his professional debut in 2012.
After splitting his time between three sports in high school, Starling is behind his peers in game experience.
Part of that inexperience showed with strikeouts in 35 percent of his at-bats during his debut season.
“I was trying to get used to everything,” he said. “I felt like there was all these expectations — I had to do this or that — but there really wasn’t. This year I’m just wanting to go out and just play my own game, have nothing to leave behind.”
His manager has similar goals for Starling.
“He’s an extremely hard worker,” Buchanan said. “He takes nothing for granted, great kid. It’s just going out and getting experience playing the game of baseball. He hasn’t played a whole lot of baseballâ€¦So for him, it’s just going out, playing every day, getting the experience, learning from failure, and we’re go from there.”
Starling is the headliner on the Legends’ first roster as a Royals affiliate. Speaking at Legends’ Media Day Wednesday, he noted he’s still learning the city.
That process may include reaching out to Cauley-Stein, who played high school football and basketball around 25 miles from Starling, in the coming weeks.
“Haven’t really gotten to talk to him a whole lot, but I know what he does and I know he plays for Kentucky,” Starling said. “So definitely I’ll probably see him here in a couple weeks. I have a couple buddies here that know him.”
While Cauley-Stein is likely a future NBA first-round pick, Starling has already experienced the perks of being picked that early by a professional team.
But now he’s enjoying soaking up his first full season of professional baseball, long bus rides and all.
“I just see myself as just another guy out here,” he said “I don’t put myself before anybody else. Just because I was a first-rounder, I don’t act like I’m a first-rounder.”
The Legends open the 2013 season Thursday at 7 p.m. in Augusta, Ga. The Legends’ home opener is scheduled for Monday at 7:05 p.m.