KC Royals may face difficult Alex Gordon decision in future

Whether it’s shortened or canceled, the 2020 season will have important implications for the KC Royals. One will be the future of its longtime left fielder.

KC Royals outfielder Alex Gordon is the popular subject of recent media pieces. Sparked by Kansas City Star beat writer Lynn Worthy’s piece and including David Scharff’s recent story here at Kings of Kauffman, writers are discussing Gordon’s desire to keep playing. The focus of this story isn’t Gordon’s wishes; instead, it asks whether the Royals should bring their outfield icon back when his contract expires after this season.

It seems like only yesterday that Gordon arrived as a “next George Brett” type player, a third baseman who the club knew could, and eventually would, hit. But Brett’s old position and Gordon didn’t get along, so, in an early but telling display of his now-legendary work ethic, he transformed himself into the best defensive left fielder in franchise history. Fittingly, the left field concourse-based Royals Hall of Fame will someday welcome Gordon as a member.

Gordon overcame his well-chronicled early struggles at third and at the plate to become a force as the KC Royals gradually shed the ugliness and despair of the countless losing seasons that tainted too much of the franchise’s storied history. From 2011-2014, he averaged almost 20 homers and 80 RBIs per year, won four straight Gold Gloves and made the All-Star team twice.

He was well on his way to a stellar 2015 when a torn hamstring sidelined him just before the All-Star break; he returned in September, helped the Royals to the World Series and hit a memorable ninth-inning home run to tie Game 1 in a moment matching the excitement of his ninth-inning game-tying single in 2014’s Game 7.

Then came Gordon’s reward, a four-year $72 million contract, the biggest deal in club history. Some cheered the mega-deal; others considered it too long and too much to pay someone entering their age-32 season.

His disappointing performance over most of the contract term is as well-documented as the struggles he endured early in his career. It’s enough to say that only his defense resembled the Gordon of old–he won two Gold Gloves to bring his career total to seven. But he hit .220, .208 and .245 the first three seasons of the deal; only last year was he truly serviceable at the plate with a .266 average, 13 home runs and 76 RBIs in 150 games. (He had 13 homers in 2018 but hit 21 points lower).

Critics may say last season’s splits prove Gordon’s improvement was illusory — he hit .275 with 10 homers in the first half, then .254 with three in the second. But that ignores the root of the .254 — a horrendous .167 August that diminished Gordon’s .327 July and .319 September. (He also hit .301 in March-April).

So it seems Gordon can still hit, or at least could last season. But he’s 36 now and may miss out on half, or all, of 2020, and 36 is a tough time to spend so long away from hitting big-league pitching. Time waits for no one and issues no rain checks for seasons lost even to a pandemic.

Gordon is the club’s leader, an outwardly quiet force whose daily approach sets an example and establishes the team tone. He’s the type of player everyone wants to see play forever. The fantasy is that he will; the truth is that he can’t.

Gordon is on a one-year contract, a deal perhaps most notable for its clause waiving his no-trade rights, which may signal a willingness to move on for the chance to play in one more postseason. That contract expires late this year whether the KC Royals play or not. Then the club has to decide whether to bring Gordon back if he wants to return and, if so, what his role will be.

Some say Gordon deserves to play for the Royals as long as he wants to, an argument often made for beloved stars in the twilight of their careers but one that ignores the hard truth that baseball is at once a team sport and a business. Gordon, like any other player, shouldn’t be guaranteed a long stay in the face of deteriorating performance–no player has a perpetual right to continue playing, or to take up a roster spot, when he can’t produce anymore. Mickey Mantle, for example, would have forced the Yankees’ hand if he hadn’t retired when he did.

Are the Royals at that point with Gordon? If MLB returns this season and he flops, probably. Bringing him back for 2021 could pose too much of a risk and block any one of the club’s hot outfield prospects; there might be merit in his return as a backup to help bring the up-and-comers along, but he may not want a part-time role. (Coaching is a possibility if Gordon wants it–it’s hard to imagine KC passing on such an opportunity).

An excellent 2020, on the other hand — especially one better than 2019 — could signal Gordon has enough left to warrant a 2021 return. And if there is no 2020 baseball for anyone, a one-year 2021 deal seems fair.

I like, appreciate and respect Gordon as much as anyone but, at some point, the KC Royals need to turn left field over to younger players like Nick Heath, Kyle Isbel and Khalil Lee. That time is likely 2022 at the latest (after all, it seems increasingly likely that minor leaguers may miss an entire year of seasoning this year, postponing their advancement by a year). Only if Gordon demonstrates he likely has several seasons of vintage Gordon left, or 2020 proves he doesn’t, should that change.

I hope Alex Gordon plays well if baseball returns this season. If it doesn’t, the KC Royals would be justified in bringing him back for another season; if it does, and Gordon doesn’t play well, the club probably needs to make the tough decision.