In his Sunday Notes column in the Boston Globe, Nick Cafardo writes the following:
The Royals had their organizational meetings a day after their World Series parade in Kansas City. GM Dayton Moore met with his scouts to go over possible moves for next season. The concern is losing Alex Gordon and Ben Zobrist. The feeling is that Zobrist could re-sign, but Gordon is likely gone. The Royals are looking not only at Jackie Bradley Jr. but free agent Gerardo Parra as possible replacements. They don’t feel they need to replace Gordon with a power hitter, given the dimensions of Kauffman Stadium, but rather a run preventer. Parra and Bradley would fit that description.
Hmmm… Where to start. I guess let’s start with the depressing part of that graph – The Royals don’t think they can retain Gordon. Deep in your heart, you’ve probably been expecting that. At the very least, the above statement shouldn’t come as a surprise. The market for outfielders is robust and Gordon is one of the top choices. It’s been just a few days, so the full market for the top free agents – or really any free agents for that matter – is just now formulating. It will be another couple of weeks before things really start cooking. Yet if you forced me to guess, I’d say there will be close to 10 serious suitors for Gordon.
Still, it’s the hot stove and that cooktop wouldn’t be worth a damn if there wasn’t some speculation. Major League Trade Rumors took a stab at a potential Gordon free agent contract and settled upon five years and $105 million. Jim Bowden at ESPN presented five years, but at $90 million. And Fangraphs crowdsourced about the same. It always feels foolish to take some of these numbers and figure a way a contract could come in for less. This is a free market where more is always the name of the game. So put me down for five years for Gordon as well.
This is where I fear the Royals will remove themselves from the bidding process. I just can’t see them reaching for five years for Gordon. Here’s my guess as to their reasoning:
1. He’s turning 32 just before the start of spring training. A five year deal would tie him up through his age 36 season. Gordon has been a fairly consistent performer over the last five seasons. His 2011 season was his best all around, while his 2013 was probably his worst. (Be gentile. “Worst” is a relative term simply pointing out the least productive of his last five seasons.)
|162 Game Avg.||162||687||605||86||163||37||3||19||75||12||5||67||143||.269||.348||.435||.783||112|
|AL (9 yrs)||1136||4818||4245||605||1140||262||21||134||523||81||35||468||1000||.269||.348||.435||.783||112|
You get the feeling going by the trends that you can spot in the above table, that Gordon is playing at his peak. That means, if you reward him with a five year contract, you are going to maybe get another couple of years of this kind of production, but then you’re going to be paying for the opening years of the decline phase of his career. That’s something the large market teams can afford to do. The Royals are not – and never will be – in a position to pay upwards of $15 million to a player who is not worth that kind of money.
The large question in front of every team with interest in Gordon is, if they are willing to pay for a couple of his decline years, what will that decline look like? No one has the crystal ball, obviously, but this is important. Some players age more gracefully than others. A guy like Zobrist, for example, just completed his age 34 season and seems like he possesses a skill set (good plate discipline, moderate power) that will help him continue to be productive throughout his mid 30s.
Gordon has been a steady – and superior – offensive performer, a strong baserunner and an amazing defender. Studies have shown exceptional athletes like Gordon can maintain their offensive performance past what we would consider their peak seasons. The decline in value for such a player come from a loss in speed and defense. In the case of Gordon, you have an all-world defender. How is his defense going to play over the next five seasons? Jeff Zimmerman, writing at Beyond The Box Score, came up with some pretty nifty graphs on outfield UZR aging patterns. He found for left fielders, their defensive peak was generally in their age 27 season. From there, they held steady until around age 32. After that… look out.
Funny thing, though. Gordon doesn’t fit the typical pattern.
His peak came in his age 30 year, or three years after the peak of the average left fielder. Then, even though he played the final month plus of the regular season after recovering from his groin strain, Gordon still turned in a defensive performance commisurant with what he was doing in his late twenties. If he is slowing down in the outfield, the numbers sure don’t notice. Of course, UZR and other defensive metrics aren’t ironclad, but considering his defensive work from 2014 and the first three months of 2015, the eye test tells me the same thing.
Another way to look at his defense is through The Fielding Bible’s Defensive Runs Saved. Here are his lifetime numbers in left:
2010 – 3
2011 – 20
2012 – 24
2013 – 16
2014 – 27
2015 – 7
Those numbers conform to the UZR/150 graph above. Throw out 2010 if you like, since he played just under 500 innings in left after returning from Triple-A. While his single-digit tally for 2015 may cause some alarm, realize that Defensive Runs Saved is more or less a counting stat. Gordon played 864 innings in left last summer, his lowest tally since 2010. If you extrapolate his innings to a more normal total (say around 1,375) his final total would be closer to 12 Defensive Runs Saved. Still off the high standard he established in previous seasons, but still well above average.
Offensively, Gordon takes a patient approach at the plate. It’s quite different in the context of the Royals who think you’re legally bound to swing at everything. (Contact rates, baby!) Last year, he saw 3.99 pitches per plate appearance. He’s tightening his zone, reducing his chase rate in each of the last two seasons. Since he’s become ALEX GORDON! he’s been offering at pitches outside the zone at a rate between 30 and 27 percent annually. Last summer, that was down to 23 percent. As a result of his improved discipline, his walk rate was at 11.6 percent. Not a career best mark, but better than he’s been over the last couple of seasons. Those walks helped him to a .377 OBP which was a career high.
What does the improved discipline mean? That’s a skill that can stay with Gordon throughout his mid 30s. And by working the pitchers to get into counts that favor the batter, Gordon should be a productive hitter for most of his next contract. It’s not a coincidence that Gordon enjoyed a 24.8 percent line drive rate last year, which again was close to his career best set back in 2012.
Gordon may lose a step in the outfield and on the bases, but his superior athleticism should ease his decline from his peak years. Then, his profile as a hitter should bring continued consistency. The decline is coming during his next contract, but it’s doubtful it will be a steep one.
2. The injuries are starting to become a concern. Sure, Gordon is a physical marvel. He should probably wear a cape in the outfield. But he doesn’t and injuries happen. Gordon missed 51 games with his groin injury last summer, and clearly wasn’t comfortable or at 100 percent when he returned. The season before, he sprained his wrist and ultimately had surgery in the winter. As you can see from the table above, it didn’t seem to hamper his ability to maintain his slugging percentage.
Still, Gordon is the kind of player who puts everything on the line when he’s in the field. That’s absolutely something we love about him, but it’s also something that could accelerate the decline of his overall production. The wrist injury that necessitated surgery last December? It was because of a head-first slide. The groin injury last July? It was from going all out to track down a fly ball hit to deep left field. That’s just who Alex Gordon is, so it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if he had a couple more of these types of injuries over the term of his next contract. And we all know that as you get older, the body takes a little longer to heal.
Those are two very important points the Royals must deal with when approaching their decision on Gordon. They simply can’t afford to dole out a long-term contract where they aren’t going to get value in return. We know this. It’s something I’ve come to really like about this team. There’s no way they are ever going to overpay a player like Boston did Hanley Ramirez last winter when they don’t have a position for him on the team. (You could argue that Ramirez doesn’t have a position no matter what. But I digress.) Being on a budget does have some benefits. The flip side is they may not be able to extend and take what amounts to a calculated risk.
There are a couple more intangible points the Royals need to think about.
3. The Royals must consider what Gordon means to the team. Gordon is a clubhouse leader, a guy his teammates look up to thanks to a tireless work ethic and quality production. We all know his story… He is from the area, grew up a Royals fan, has a brother named after George Brett, blah, blah, blah. It’s great, but it’s ultimately meaningless. What does matter is his presence in the clubhouse and his role as an anchor for this team.
Obviously, the Royals played a good portion of the 2015 season without Gordon and not only survived, they thrived. I think to jump to a conclusion the Royals could function for an entire season without Gordon in their lineup would be misguided. The Royals need his on base ability in their lineup. Put aside for the moment the insanity of batting Gordon eighth and realize on a team built on free swingers and high contact rates, his patience is needed. They need his defense. They need the threat of his arm in the outfield. They need his health and they need his consistency.
Gordon is second on the Royals in fWAR the past three seasons. He’s the leader over the past four. He was fourth among position players last summer, but again, it’s not a stretch to see him as the most valuable Royal behind Cain if he had stayed healthy for the entire season. Bottom line, Gordon is an integral part of this team and this lineup.
This is an interesting discussion to have about Gordon because it’s so rare. Seriously, count the number of players who mean so much to their team. This takes added weight since the Royals have been so successful over the last couple of seasons. Take away the pennants and we aren’t even discussing his impact in these terms. He’s not a superstar by definition, but he’s the rock of the Royals.
Which brings us to the final point.
4. The Royals have a window of opportunity. I know, I know… Such windows don’t really exist. Except I think they do. Look at the Royals and their current position in The Process. Eric Hosmer is under team control for the next two seasons. Same for Mike Moustakas. Same for Lorenzo Cain. Wade Davis, Danny Duffy… The Royals control them for two more years as well. Salvador Perez is being abused each summer catching more innings than any human should be allowed. The point is, the nucleus of the 2015 World Champion Kansas City Royals will be scattered across baseball in the coming seasons, with question marks for replacements in the minors. Keeping the band together for as long as possible, even if it means paying Gordon for a couple of years where his production may not match the dollars, isn’t a bad idea. The Royals, more than anyone, understand how difficult it is to build a championship team. The last two seasons, they won an American League pennant and a World Series. With the core of this group under contract for another couple of seasons, if they can find a way to bring back Gordon – at many ways the heart of the core (if I may go deep metaphor for a moment) – they can still be a force in the American League Central.
The Royals went through this last winter with Billy Butler. Butler was thought to be an integral piece of the Royals lineup. And he was. Except there are a couple of asterisks that come with his situation. One, he was pretty clearly already declining and given he’s maybe one-tenth the athlete Gordon is, his decline figured to be abrupt. And two, the Royals were able to upgrade at his position with Kendrys Morales. Now at the time, the upgrade wasn’t so obvious. Yet the potential was there. Should the Royals decide to walk away from Gordon, they will be walking from a player who could likely hold off the regression monster for a few of the years of the multi-year deal he is certain to secure, plus they will be doing so without an obvious upgrade at his position.
I mentioned at the open of this post that I thought Gordon would score five years. What about the dollars? Put me down for somewhere in $80-90 million range. That’s between a $16 million and $18 million average annual value. The Royals have been extremely creative with their contracts and there’s no reason to think they can’t continue that with Gordon. They could front load his deal to give them some financial flexibility in years four and five of his contract when the rest of the core have moved on. Or they could backload the deal in anticipation of a new television contract and continued success of MLBAM. Or they could throw in an option year at the end with a buyout to push the AAV to where he needs to be.
David Glass and Moore have both gone on the record saying they want to retain Gordon, but that he will ultimately do what’s right for his family. That’s an admirable stance to take, but the Royals need to do what’s best for their franchise. Nearly 10 years ago, Moore and the Royals signed Gil Meche to a five year deal valued at $55 million. That continues to be the largest Royals contract ever, both in years and dollars. It’s not difficult to think that given the Royals recent success and the way the game continues to rake in the money, the Royals should be able to not only equal the length, but they should comfortably be able to go past the dollar amount. Bringing back Gordon would maximize their current position as the class of the AL. October glory is never guaranteed, but keeping Gordon on the team for the next couple of seasons keeps the Royals in position to continue this franchise’s success.
If the Royals are serious about continuing this amazing run of success, they will bring back Alex Gordon.