In the offseason before 2011, Alex Gordon promised to dominate, then went out and did just that, finishing in the top ten in the American League in runs scored, hits, total bases, doubles, offensive WAR, OPS+, times on base…well the whole list is here. He also won the Gold Glove in left field, leading the majors in outfield assists.
The overall production made him the team’s most valuable player last year after many well-documented years of frustration as the former second overall pick finally performed at a level that many expected years ago before injuries and other issues slowed him down.
Gordon is still under arbitration and will get a raise this year. The hunch is that he’ll also get an extension, probably around four years. What would that mean in relation to previous outfielders who have secured extensions over the years, and what price can we guess at with Gordon? There are plenty of examples to look over to get our best guess at those answers.
The factors I’m most concerned with in determining what range Gordon’s potential extension could come in at are 1) the age of the player 2) the player’s playing time in the major leagues to that point 3) the player’s performance relative to his league (which I’ll use OPS+ for) and 4) the context of past players’ extensions.
Gordon is unique in that he’s a former top prospect and yet he’s a year behind where he’d expect to be when looking at service time. Hip surgery in 2009 and trips back and forth from Omaha have him under team control until after 2013. Right now, it’s a question of whether 2011 was a fluke or if it’s Gordon finally realizing his potential while in an environment where he doesn’t have to be the savior and where he’s healthy, or if it’s a career year and he’ll regress to being just above average (or worse).
To me, I fall into the camp that thinks once you display a skill, you own it, and while in some cases, the likelihood of reproducing production can vary, depending on the player, when it’s considered coming from a former #2 pick, it seems more like true talent that can be replicated, rather than some sudden explosion that then collapses when looking at other players. I’m willing to give him the benefit of a doubt for now.*
*Very possible that I’m seeing him with powder blue-colored glasses, too.
Gordon will turn 28 in February, which, you’ll see, is on older than many of the other outfielders who had procured extensions in the past, though there are many who got their deals around their age 27 season. He’s older than the norm, but not much older.
In looking over recent outfielder extensions, there was a slight split between extensions for players who were being signed early in their careers to longer term deals and players who put in a few years before earning their extensions. Gordon fits into the second category, obviously, as his first few years in the majors were disappointing and nothing that compelled the Royals to give him a seven year deal in 2008.
The following chart shows the group of players who’ve received extensions, starting in 2003 (Vernon Wells, Torii Hunter). In some cases, the extensions bought out the last couple arbitration years and in others, it ended up adding a few more years after the player would have reached free agency:
*Years and Salary if all options exercised – contract information from Cot’s Baseball Contracts. Age is during the season after signing the extension. OPS+ and games played are figures from the time the extension was signed.
Gordon’s 108 OPS+ sticks him right in the middle of that group and his age and service puts him very close to the Corey Hart kind of range. Hart ended up winning an arbitration hearing in 2010 after receiving a raise from $444,000 to $3.25 million in 2009. Then he received his extension before 2011.
Gordon’s in a bit of a different situation than Hart. The Brewers outfielder is a two time All-Star and has had better production with two standout seasons mixed within league average years.
Adam Lind had a career year in 2009 and signed his extension that guaranteed his salary for the two years that would follow his last arbitration-eligible year and added option years, and like most, was signing the deal with less than three full years of games under his belt. He’s now a first baseman primarily, but could play outfield if necessary.
Most of these extensions are reasonable. The Rios extension looks awful now, as his production stopped after signing, but he looked like one of the developing, dynamic talents at the time. At the time of the signing, Nick Markakis was looking like another breakout candidate, but his power and speed numbers haven’t matched his batting and on base skills since. Players like Crawford, Young and Hunter were signing based on potential after showing flashes of the skills that now have been seen after a few more years. That’s the kind of deal that Upton and Gonzalez have received, as their teams have tried to lock them up now and get a few extra years after arbitration and maybe at slightly less than market value (if they perform as expected).
The interesting deals are those of Victorino and Ethier. The Dodgers bought out a couple of Ethier’s arbitration years, but he still has one more in 2012. The Dodgers are yet to offer any further extension to him. His performance justifies his getting a sweet deal, but his age limits the long-term commitment the Dodgers may be willing to make. Victorino’s age may have limited the number of years that the Phillies gave him, but his performance earned a high annual salary.
So where’s that put Gordon?
In 2010, Gordon and the Royals agreed to $1.15 million and only got a raise to $1.4 million last year. MLB Trade Rumors projects his 2012 salary figure at $4.4 million. The feeling from both Royals beat writers, Bob Dutton of the Kansas City Star and Dick Kaegel of Royals.com, is that Gordon and the Royals are mutually interested in a deal. Dutton projected the deal to be around four years at $30 million total.
Looking at the previous extensions for outfielders, that seems close to the norm. If Gordon continued to produce, he’d be a steal at that annual salary and would be a good veteran fit for a young team ready to contend. His batting average is probably going to regress next year, but his power and walk figures can easily stay in the same range, and his defense looks legit.
When the Royals have decided to keep a face of the franchise, they’ve done so. Zack Greinke got his extension (of course, he was then traded). Joakim Soria got a deal. Billy Butler was locked up for the forseeable future. Gordon’s next on that list and wouldn’t be too costly when Eric Hosmer and company start to get to their early arbitration seasons.
Based on his pedigree and recent performance, Gordon is someone who should be extended. His past struggles and age limit his upside, so he won’t get the rich deals that Rios got way back when and that Gonzalez and Jay Bruce received recently. That puts him right in the middle, and based on his OPS+, that’s right where he should be. The average outfielder in the above list received an annual salary of $7.45 million. Dutton’s guess is an average of $7.5 million. When the time comes to exchange figures within the next week (the deadline is January 18), that’s probably right where they’ll end up if the extension comes to pass.
And since it’s Dayton Moore, don’t be surprised to see an option year or two tacked on. Dayton loves him some option years.