I want to be as clear as possible from the start: I am a huge Alex Gordon fan. I was there before the Kansas City Royals even drafted him, watching You Tube clips of that dreamy swing and praying Allard Baird didn’t mess up the chance to draft the prodigy that was Awesome Alex.
I was also there on Opening Day, with the bases loaded, a sell-out crowd on its feet, and expectations very few would have any chance of meeting. My wife has his jersey, my kid has his rookie card…our family is all-in on Awesome Alex. That being said, I do have to wonder; is now really the time to give him a contract extension?
For a Royals’ fan, this question may seem equivalent to blasphemy. We waited so long for him to become what we’d dreamed he could. We went through ridiculously long slumps, excruciating injuries, broken promises and position changes. So before I go any further, I want to say I am not questioning if the Royals should extend Gordon at some point. I hope Gordon is a Royal for life and proves to be every bit the savior we anointed him back in 2007. But think back just 12 months ago, before his breakout season of 2011. Gordon was on his last leg and it would not have been completely absurd to suggest the Royals give up on him ever becoming the player they’d drafted him to be. Then came the declaration. Many scoffed and almost all of us felt uneasy when Gordon told the world he planned to “dominate” in 2011, but then he went out and did it. Gordon in 2011 was everything we’d hoped he’d be from the beginning. I don’t think I need to recite his statistics any more than they already have been but just consider a couple:
– His 140 OPS+ was the highest by a Royals’ everyday player in 10 years
– His 5.9 WAR (per baseballreference.com’s metrics) was the highest in 8 years
– He not only won a Gold Glove but actually received 3 votes on the MVP ballot, for a team that lost 91 games
– He set career highs in every single major offensive category
That seems like a good time to stop, because it brings me precisely to the root of my question. Did Alex Gordon just have a breakout season or a career year? Baseball history is full of players who have put together seasons as good as, and much better than, Gordon without ever really coming close to repeating the performance. Even Royals history has a few shining examples. Of the 11 Royals to put up an OPS + of 140 or better, only 4 (George Brett, Danny Tartabull, Hal McRae, Willie Aikens) did it more than once. The other 8?
*Schleinblum may be worthy a post of his own some day. He put up his 140 OPS in 1972 in the only season in which he was ever given more than 500 at bats. He also made the All Star game that year. He was then sent to the Reds as part of the Hal McRae deal, traded to the Angels 6 months later for a PTBNL, and traded back to the Royals in ’75 for Paul Schaal. From 1970-1975 Schleinblum played for the Indians, Senators, Royals, Reds, Angels, Royals, and Cardinals.
The numbers you see by the players’ names are their age when they had their career year. Notice how none of the one-timers are under 26? All of the players to do it more than once were 26 or younger, other than McRae. Does this mean Alex Gordon, who was 27, will never put up another season this good? No, not at all, but I do think it points out the probability is better that he just had his career season.
This matters for many reasons, most notably being that the Royals really don’t need to be in the business of signing players to multiple year deals based on the numbers put up in their career year. I expect Gordon to be a good player this year and moving forward, but I don’t expect him to do as well, relatively, as he did last season. If that does turn out to be the case, why the rush to pay him now when you still control him for two more seasons? Jeff Francouer is already locked up for 2 more years, Lorenzo Cain for the next 5, and you have phenom Wil Myers hopefully making a push to join the club in 2013. There are so many possible outcomes with those four players heading into 2012, why lock yourself into a long term deal? Well there are 2 reasons:
For one, this fan base, while energized and optimistic, is also leery of owner David Glass. Glass is viewed as cheap by many and detached by even more. If fan-favorite Gordon were to leave Kansas City and find the same success that Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran, and Jermaine Dye did nearly ten years ago it would be a hard pill for the fans to swallow. Not signing Gordon, after all the talk about it this offseason, could signal to fans that this is the same old Royals that can’t afford to keep any of their homegrown talent.
The second is related to that, if not directly. No one really knows what Gordon’s mindset is. I know he has said publicly that he wants to stay a Royal…Damon said the same thing. What I do not know is whether or not Gordon and his agent are pushing hard for an extension this winter. Is he going to be insulted if the Royals do not put something together for him? If he is, how will he react? Many a player has had a career year trying to prove to management they are worth the extension they did not get. Just as many have pouted and their performance has suffered because of it.
Personally, I see Gordon as the type of player to excel in this situation. The struggles at the beginning of his career have hardened him and I have a hard time seeing him pouting, especially if this team is successful early. Many clubs would have given up on Gordon after his terrible 2009-2010 and wanting to wait until next offseason to get an extension done should not totally erase the goodwill that has been built. If I were Dayton Moore, I would wait to sign Alex Gordon, knowing that if he duplicates, or improves upon, last season I will be digging even deeper into David Glass’ pockets next winter.