By now, you’ve heard the news of Alex Gordon’s demotion to Omaha. And now, the news is that the Royals organization wants him to work on learning the outfield and playing more at first base. So how did Gordon, 2005′s second overall pick, get to this point and where does he go from here?
You know the names of other selections from the 2005 draft: Ryan Braun, Ryan Zimmerman, Troy Tulowitski for starters. It’s painful to watch them rise to stardom while Gordon spins his wheels. At the time, nobody would have expected that five years later, Gordon would be giving way to Chris Getz in the playing time pecking order. But that’s how it is.
Gordon’s the victim of immense expectations and he’s obviously yet to meet them. When he was drafted, he became anointed as the next George Brett, a left-handed slugging third baseman who would lead Kansas City’s offense back to the playoffs. Maybe it was the jump from AA straight to the majors, maybe he just wasn’t ready yet, but Gordon struggled right away, but there was still hope. Young players can turn it around quickly when the talent is there, and as a former NCAA player of the year and the 2006 Minor League Player of the Year, Gordon’s talent was apparent. He just needed to turn it around.
Here’s an interesting table:
|Player A||Player B|
Player A is Gordon in 2007, his rookie year. Player B is Mike Schmidt. Both prone to strikeouts, both with moderate power in their first season. Not too far apart from a production standpoint (though Schmidt had more power and patience and did more with 25% less appearances). Mike Schmidt went on to a Hall of Fame career after that season. Alex Gordon hasn’t had the same career path thus far:
|162 Game Avg.||162||655||77||143||37||2||18||66||63||144||.249||.331||.413||.744||97|
You can see that Gordon’s follow-up season wasn’t much improved from his rookie year, but there was a bit of progress in lowering his strikeout rate and nearly doubling his walkrate. With an OPS+ of 109, he performed 9% better than league average.
Gordon’s also ran into injuries which has slowed his progress. Gordon played a few games with an obvious injury early in the 2009 season, eventually having surgery to repair cartilage in his hip and missing three months. Early in spring training this season, he broke his thumb sliding into second base on a steal. He started the season on the disabled list.
You could attribute his slow start in 2010 to that lost time, and could say that Gordon’s 12 games at the major league level were essentially his spring training, except it counts. For that reason, I’m not sure it’s the right move for the Royals to send him to Omaha. He won’t regain a feel for major league pitching by facing minor leaguers. And what Gordon needs to work on is hitting major league pitching.
But a trip to Omaha will allow Gordon to see everyday playing time, something he wasn’t going to do in Kansas City with Chris Getz back. I wouldn’t say Chris Getz has more talent than Gordon or that he’s a better player, but for what the Royals have on the roster, he’s the most solid second baseman they have. Additionally, Gordon suffered by both Alberto Callaspo’s abilities and his lack of abilities. Much has been made of Callaspo’s defensive problems, as he lacks the range and reaction necessary to play second base adequately. However, he makes such consistent contact, he could hit .300 in his sleep. Also his power has increased since coming to the Royals from Arizona. His bat is too valuable to leave on the bench, especially with a .194-hitting Gordon. And if nothing else, Callaspo isn’t quite the butcher at third base that he is at second.
One knock on Gordon stems from his high strikeout totals, and as long as strikeouts are an issue, he’ll never make enough contact to hit .300. His patience has improved, but only in an increase in walks, not in recognizing – and driving – hitter’s pitches. Gordon’s the type of hitter that takes advantage of mistake pitches, but not necessarily any hittable pitch.
Steve Carter at projectprospect.com did a thorough (and amazing) scouting analysis of Gordon’s swing, comparing it to Joe Mauer and Andre Ethier. Guess which of those three players has the most flawed swing in that contest? You should check it out, but here’s the quick rundown: Gordon relied on his upper body to overpower college and minor league pitching, but a slower, elongated swing can be exploited by major league pitchers.
Gordon’s swing is less efficient than some of the elite hitters, as his hands are slower to the ball, his hips create less power, and as a result, he has less time to read the pitch and make solid contact. This also makes him susceptible to offspeed pitches and pitches away. At a certain point, mere talent alone can’t get it done. The major leagues aren’t meant to be easy, so when someone has Gordon’s raw talent, they either refine it and become more efficient to take advantage of it, or they don’t. So far Gordon hasn’t made those adjustments.
All is not lost
So now Gordon’s in Omaha, but also, he’s going to be working in left field and at first base. Some, like Sam Mellinger see this idea as a sign that the Royals don’t see Gordon as a cornerstone any longer. I’m not so sure. When Ryan Braun came up in 2007 he played exclusively at third base. In 2008, defensive liabilities caused Milwaukee to move him to left field. In Gordon’s case, he’s not a great defensive third baseman, but he’s not far from average, at least. But neither is Callaspo, and third may be the only position Callaspo may be able to play at all.
Gordon, we don’t know yet. He’s played a limited amount of time at first base, and that may be his eventual destination if the outfield doesn’t work out. I say it’s worth a shot. There’s no rule that moving a player ultimately damages their potential. Sure, Mark Teahen moved from third base to the outfield when Gordon came up and his production suffered. But that’s more on Teahen than anything. For every Teahen there’s a Craig Biggio or Paul Molitor or Robin Yount. (Okay so there are more Teahens than Hall of Famers, you get the idea.)
At any rate, Gordon’s trade value is lower than it could ever be, especially considering that the Royals have control over his rights through 2014. To trade him now would be crazy unless there was a solid return. Gordon hasn’t had solid playing time for the last 13 months due to injuries and Trey Hillman. Maybe with a healthy 2009, Gordon would have experienced the breakout everyone’s been waiting on. We just don’t know. If you consider only Gordon’s second half numbers in 2009, he hit .252/.333/.399 with an OPS of .732. That’s a total OPS+ of 108, 8% better than average. It’s not progress, but it’s not bad for missing so much time.
So now what
Let’s take a look into the future.
Players under team control after 2010 (final year in parentheses)
Yuniesky Betancourt (2012)
Jason Kendall (2012)
Billy Butler (2013)
Alberto Callaspo (2013)
Brayan Pena (2013)
Alex Gordon (2014)
Josh Fields (2014)
Mike Aviles (2015)
Chris Getz (2015)
Mitch Maier (2015)
David DeJesus (2011 – team option)
Rick Ankiel (2011 – team option)
Scott Podsednik (2011 – team option)
Looking at that list, the outfield looks like the most opportune position for regular playing time for Gordon if he can make the adjustment. And if not, Jose Guillen’s contract finally comes off the books after this season, opening up for Butler and allowing Gordon to slide over to first base.
Or in a perfect world, you could see this lineup in 2011:
That’s assuming the option for DeJesus is exercised (and he hasn’t been traded by season’s end) and that Ankiel and Podsednik’s options have been declined. Even if one of them did stay around, they’d likely split time with Maier, who I like, but he’s not a major cog in the organization.
Would I prefer to see Gordon playing everyday for Kansas City? Of course. He can’t improve against major league pitching if he doesn’t see it. But he also has mechanical issues to work out in his swing, and he wouldn’t see enough playing time in the majors to implement those adjustments. Longer-term, if he can make the adjustment to left field, it creates opportunities for other arrangements of the lineup, allowing the corner infield spots to two big bats in Butler and Callaspo, and, if he ever gets up to the big league club, Kila Ka’aihue.
Is Alex Gordon going to be the next George Brett? No he isn’t. He’s not going to be the next Mike Schmidt. He may only turn out to be average. But at 26 years old and with obvious raw talent, Alex Gordon is and should still be part of “The Process”. It’s too early to cut bait now.