Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports
While the first four parts of this series have featured players who are under team control for at least three more seasons at affordable salaries, I’m changing things up a bit for this final post. Of the five players most likely to receive a contract extension offer, it makes sense to end with the best player of the bunch: Alex Gordon.
Gordon is the best player on the Royals team, and even though he’s making more money than any other player, he’s still being paid at a below-market rate. In today’s landscape, $14 million for a guy of Gordon’s caliber is a bargain, and the upcoming season is the last one in which the star left fielder is guaranteed to be in a Royals uniform. Gordon has said he’ll exercise his player option for 2016, and there’s no reason to doubt him right now, but it is worth mentioning that he could walk after this season.
By now, everyone is familiar with Gordon’s story, so I won’t bore you once again. His career didn’t get off to a great start, but since 2011, Gordon has been one of the best overall players in the game, posting a line of .283/.356/.453, with a 123 wRC+, all while collecting four consecutive Gold Gloves. He’s valuable at the plate, on the bases, and in the field.
Considering all that Gordon has accomplished with the Royals, he’s basically a lock to wind up in the team’s Hall of Fame when his playing days are over. He’s in the top ten of several statistics among all-time Royals, and in some cases, he ranks even higher. Gordon’s already a great Royal, but he has an opportunity to be one of the two or three greatest Royals in team history, if he stays in Kansas City beyond 2016.
Beyond the on-field reasons for extending Gordon, he and his family have had a big impact on the community through their charitable work, and he’s a bit of a hometown hero, growing up in (relatively) nearby Lincoln, Nebraska. Those things shouldn’t always affect contract decisions, but with a player of Gordon’s stature, it’s a part of the package.
If the Royals do pursue an extension for Gordon before this season, how much money would they need to offer?
There was one player I thought of when looking for a comparable player and contract offer, and it’s a player Royals fans saw quite a bit of at the end of October: Hunter Pence. The Giants signed their right fielder to a five-year, $90 million contract after the 2013 season, just before he was set to become a free agent.
At first glance, this may seem like an odd comparison. Gordon plays hard, but it looks so effortless because of his athleticism. He looks so smooth. Pence also plays hard, but he looks like some kind of alien trying to play Twister. If they were characters in Pitch Perfect, Pence would be the Benji to Gordon’s Jesse. Don’t try to tell me Pence doesn’t do weird magic tricks in his spare time.
Despite their playing styles, there are quite a few similarities between the two players. In the three years prior to signing, Pence hit .283/.342/.470. In the last three years, Gordon hit .276/.349/.436. Neither player is known for his raw speed, but they are both excellent baserunners. Obviously Gordon is much better defensively, but Pence does bring some value there. While the defensive metrics don’t love Pence, he looks to be above average compared to other right fielders.
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Pence was set to play 2014 as a 31-year old, and Gordon turns 31 next month. Both players get on-base frequently, and they both have strikeout rates below the league average. Neither one has been an elite hitter in recent years, but their overall performances help offset that quite a bit.
It’s not a perfect comparison because of Gordon’s edge on defense and Pence’s edge on offense, but for our purposes, it works well enough. Here are the year-by-year payouts on Pence’s deal:
The Giants didn’t add any options to the contract, so Pence will be a free agent following his age 35 season.
That’s $90 million dollars handed out to one player. The Royals don’t usually give out half that much money to one player, so it definitely looks like a lot of cash. But if Gordon were a free agent, he’d probably receive something like the deal above, if not more. Luckily for the Royals, Gordon isn’t a free agent right now.
Also helping the Royals is the fact that Gordon may be willing to take a hometown discount to stay in Kansas City, so they might not have to pay such a premium for his services. Considering the team will have such a high payroll this season, they could try to restructure his current deal to pay more money down the road, maybe with something like this:
That’s a $73 million guarantee over five years, which is quite a bit less than Pence got, so it may not be enough. If Gordon is more concerned with remaining with the Royals, the money might be less of a factor, although he’s obviously worth much more than that contract.
It seemed that many people thought the Pence deal was an overpay, but I’m not quite as sure. Good players are expensive these days, and Gordon’s an extremely good player. Even adding another $15 million shouldn’t be an issue, if that’s what it takes to get the deal done.
Another name that might get floated around as a comparison is Brett Gardner, who signed a four-year, $52 million deal with the Yankees last year, although it doesn’t take effect until this season. Gardner is a great defender in left, much like Gordon, and is very valuable on the basepaths. That would be a better deal for the Royals, but Gordon has been better offensively, and has the edge defensively, so it will likely take more to get him locked up.
Aging is always something to consider, even moreso when you factor in the amount of money at risk. That being said, everyone knows how hard Gordon works to keep himself in shape. His dedication and work ethic are second to none, and he’s been able to stay on the field so much in recent years because of how disciplined he is. Gordon has avoided eating ice cream for a few years now. I’ve avoided eating ice cream for a few hours.
Because of his work ethic and overall health, I think Gordon should be able to age quite well in his mid-30s, lessening the risk for the Royals. Even if he does lose a step in the outfield, they could give him semi-regular time at the designated hitter spot, allowing him to provide value without needing to be a Gold Glove outfielder.
Had I written this article a month ago, it may have made even more sense. As things are now, however, Gordon is recovering from wrist surgery, and may not be a full participant in Spring Training. He’s been able to stay pretty healthy for the last few years, but he is on the wrong side of 30, and with how hard he plays, injuries could become more of a concern in the future.
I would totally understand if the Royals didn’t want to hand out that kind of money to a player recovering from surgery until he can prove he’s fully back, but I think it’s still something to consider. They could even try to change the structure of the deal to hedge their bet. Instead of guaranteeing the last year or two, they could turn them into vesting options based on plate appearances. I don’t know how appealing that would be to Gordon, so they might need to add some more money up front, but it’s worth exploring.
Gordon has been the Royals’ best player since 2011, and he’s been one of the more valuable players in the game. He’s already got a spot in the team’s Hall of Fame, and I’m sure the organization would love to keep him around for many more years. A player with Gordon’s ability is usually very difficult to retain because of how much money he can make on the open market, but under these circumstances, the Royals may be able to get their star left fielder at a significant discount.
Investing a lot of money in one player is always a risk. In Gordon’s case, the risk is well worth the cost. He’s meant so much to this franchise, and he’s still playing at a tremendously high level. The Royals wouldn’t be paying him through his late-30s, so as long as he continues to be committed to keeping himself in shape, he should hold off that steep aging decline for several more years, making this an investment the Royals won’t regret.