With the ink drying on the Alex Gordon contract, it’s time for a little more reflection on the biggest free agent deal in Royals franchise history.
— With Gordon set to earn $12 million, he’s actually taking a pay cut from last season. He earned $14 million last year. And remember, he turned down his player option that was worth $13.25 million and a qualifying offer of $15.8 million. I don’t know why I find that interesting, but I do.
— The Royals 2016 payroll comes into focus ahead of the arbitration guys getting their contracts settled. The club currently has 16 players under contract at a total of $97.725 million. Add the $20.6 million MLB Trade Rumors estimates for the seven arbitration-eligible Royals, and you have a payroll of just above $118 million for 23 players. Throw two more on the roster at major league minimum and they are closing in on $120 million.
That’s a lot of cash, but it’s only around $7 million more than the Opening Day payroll in 2015. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great they’re spending more money. But I think they can spend more. I think there’s still room to add a starting pitcher on a short-term or backloaded deal where he would make $10 million this season. There are still several free agent rotation candidates available. The Royals have been linked to Ian Kennedy of late. Besides Kennedy, you have Yovanni Gallardo and Wei-Yin Chen as your best options available. All three are turned down the qualifying offer, meaning the Royals would forfeit their draft pick in the first round next June. There was probably a point in the last month where they were banking on collecting an extra pick from Gordon departing. Facing a payroll with room to grow, but not a ton of flexibility, and considering the loss of a draft pick, would the Royals go after one of the remaining best three? Or would they turn to the Upside Bargain Bin and look to a Doug Fister or Mat Latos as potential rebound candidates?
— Who’s up for some projections?
Yeah, yeah, yeah… Royals fans don’t have any time for projections. I know. But it’s an interesting exercise to look at an individual and his contract. At least it is to me. As always, your mileage may vary.
Let’s start with a little perspective on our favorite left fielder. From 2011 to 2014, Gordon averaged 156 games a season and 5.6 fWAR. Spanning his age 27 to age 30 seasons, it wouldn’t be out of line to consider those his peak years.
The projection systems all take this into account. Steamer (found on the player pages at FanGraphs) pegs Gordon for a 3.7 WAR in 2016. If you feel the Steamer projection is harsh, remember he suffered the groin injury last summer and finished with 2.8 fWAR in 104 games, his lowest totals since his left field renaissance. If you prefer, Dan Symborski’s ZiPS has Gordon at 3.1 WAR next year and around 10.3 WAR for the life of the contract. Baseball Prospectus hasn’t released individual PECOTA projections yet, but they have Gordon at around 11 wins over the next four seasons. If you apply an aging curve to the Steamer projection, you can come up with 11.2 WAR in that span.
That’s all a complicated way of saying it feels like a safe bet to project a healthy Gordon for close to 11 wins over the life of the contract.
That “digital dandy” Symborski estimates a value of a win at around $6.5 million, meaning he expects Gordon to be worth around the $72 million the Royals owe him. Handshakes and backslaps all around. But if you chose to believe the value of a win is higher and that Gordon will finish his new contract with the 11 wins mentioned a couple of graphs above, then the contract looks like a little more of a bargain for the Royals. The Baseball Prospectus post tags the value of a win at around $7 million. That means according to their PECOTA projections, Gordon would produce around $85 million in value.
I’ve heard rumblings the value of a win this winter could be set even higher – closer to $8 million. If that’s the case, and if Gordon produces the aforementioned 11 wins, then he would be worth closer to $95 million. Taking that figure and applying an inflation amount at four years and $72 million, the break even point for Gordon and the Royals is around 8.4 WAR total.
Obviously, things can (and will) happen. Injuries, a steeper than expected decline, bad karma… things conspire to work against ballplayers in their 30s. Yet this contract feels like a fair deal for both sides. The risk is there, but it’s not extraordinary. I would bet that if we jumped in the Delorean and traveled ahead to 2020, this will look like an extremely sensible move.
— One thing I haven’t heard discussed is the fact the Royals, in bringing back Gordon, get a known commodity. There’s no mystery about his health and there is absolutely no question about his work ethic. It may sound silly, but I think the Royals can find value and comfort in that. If for some reason, Gordon is sidelined by injury or some other circumstance, the team knows he will do everything he can to get back on the field. I’m thinking about another free agent outfielder Dayton Moore signed to a multi-year deal earlier in his tenure when I’m writing this paragraph.
— When a guy returns to his original team after exploring the free agent market, there’s always rumblings about the “hometown discount.” Color me skeptical that Gordon gave the Royals said bargain. The fact of the 2016 free agent market is the pitchers went off the board early and the position players found themselves frozen out of the money. Except for the Cubs, there hasn’t been anyone spending on bats and gloves. You knew something was up when the rumor mill churned the White Sox wouldn’t go more than three years for either Gordon or Yoenes Cespedes. The Sox need a corner outfielder, so it’s odd they would take that sort of stand. Except it turns out they probably aren’t alone.