The question isn’t as absurd as it feels for Kansas City Royals fans. Loyalty would suggest that, of course, the Royals would prefer to bring back the career Kansas City guy over a rental like Zobrist.
But, baseball general managers can’t afford to make decisions solely based on what feels right.
Market reality suggests that the soon-to-be 35-year-old Ben Zobrist won’t be able to command nearly the contract offers that Alex Gordon figures to draw at age 32 next season. Not only will the yearly cost be lower, teams are likely to offer Zobrist no more than a two year deal.
Gordon will command four, or even five years, at a price likely to exceed $20 million per season.
The fact is, right now, Zobrist and Gordon are close on offense with both players notching a .785 career OPS. Meanwhile, Alex enjoys a considerable defensive edge (Zobrist posted a solid 9.4 Ultimate Zone Rating compared to a spectacular 25.0 for Gordon in 2014).
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Though, in Zobrist’s defense, he’s much more versatile than Gordon. He’s also a switch hitter. Overall, Ben Zobrist gives KC Royals manager Ned Yost more roster flexibility than Alex Gordon.
The biggest argument in favor of the Kansas City Royals picking Zobrist over Gordon is that his lower-risk contract might allow Dayton Moore to keep his core together longer than if he made a major financial commitment to Alex Gordon.
The odd thing is, I think the KC Royals are more likely to allow Gordon to leave in free-agency if they succeed in bringing home the 2015 World Series trophy. Winning a title would validate Dayton Moore’s tenure as GM, and David Glass’ era as owner. That would make positioning themselves for a favorable local TV contract in 2019 the franchise’s primary goal.
Locked into an unfavorable local TV deal until four years from now, the Kansas City Royals could change their financial profile if they could maintain their current level of fan interest through 2019. Dayton Moore has to be aware of the $1 billion deal the St. Louis Cardinals won from Fox Sports with a market not much bigger than Kansas City.
A good TV contract with the KC Royals outstanding local ratings could make the team an upper-mid market club for years to come.
To keep those ratings up, the Kansas City Royals can’t afford to win a title then to dismantle the club. The front office will need to maintain enough of a winner to keep the fan mania going, which is where Zobrist could then have value over Gordon. But, KC Royals fans will be less tolerant of losing Alex Gordon without a ring to indicate that the Glass/Moore duo have achieved their ultimate goal.
All of this theorizing might seem premature when the Kansas City Royals still have a stretch run to complete and, presumably, another playoff run to enjoy. Even so, Dayton Moore is probably watching how Ben Zobrist fits into the KC Royals clubhouse with an eye toward such a possible future.
He wouldn’t be doing his job if he fails to do so.