2012 Key Players: Alex Gordon finally lives up to expectations

It’s been an interesting major league career for Alex Gordon. The player proclaimed as the next George Brett, a can’t miss prospect, almost became the next Clint Hurdle, the Royals late 70’s can’t miss prospect who did miss.

It started out so well. After a stellar collegiate career at the University of Nebraska, the Royals selected Gordon as the second overall pick of the 2005 draft, part of a class that included Justin Upton, Ryan Braun and Troy Tulowitzki. In 2006, Gordon debuted in AA Wichita, with a .325/.427/.588 line with 23 home runs and 101 RBI. With no real third base options at the major league level, the Royals proclaimed Alex Gordon as their starting third baseman in 2007.

And what a debut it was! Opening day at Kauffman Stadium against the Boston Red Sox with Curt Schilling on the mound. Bottom of the first inning, bases loaded and Alex Gordon, the Kansas City Royals savior, the next George Brett, was at bat. Wouldn’t it be great if he hit a grand slam, or at least got a hit? Instead, he struck out swinging after seven pitches.

After a while, the rumblings began. Gordon strikes out a lot. He has poor plate discipline. There’s holes in his swing. He has trouble against left-handed pitching. He doesn’t look comfortable at third. While Gordon had a solid 2007 and 2008, He didn’t look like the superstar player the Royals and their fans expected.

In 2009, a hip injury limited Gordon to 49 games on the majors and 30 games in the minors. Gordon hit .232/.324/.378 in the majors, while averaging .327/.427/.588 in the minors.

Then in 2010, it became worse. Gordon broke his thumb in spring training, which started a disastrous season. Gordon played in 74 games in the majors, with a career low .215/.315/.355 line. Another hot third base prospect was on his way, Mike Moustakas. Billy Butler was firmly at DH and Eric Hosmer was on his way as the future first baseman. It appeared Gordon’s career was fading away, with nowhere to go.

So the Royals did what a baseball manager does when a kid can’t play: send him to the outfield. After recovering from his thumb injury and playing 12 major league games, the Royals sent Gordon to AAA Omaha to learn how to play the outfield. He eventually came back to KC, playing 55 games in left and three games in right. It was a last ditch effort to salvage what was a disappointing career. Maybe Gordon wouldn’t be a superstar, but maybe he could be a solid, if not spectacular outfielder.

Everything clicked in 2011. Gordon played in 151 games, 148 of them in left field. He didn’t get hurt and batted .303/.376/.502, hit 23 home runs and lead the American League in outfield assists with 20. He also led the league in fielding percentage with .911, winning an AL Gold Glove his first year as an outfielder. The improvements were dramatic.

So what happened to make 2011 Gordon’s breakout season? Gordon worked with hitting coach Kevin Seitzer after the 2010 season to rebuild his swing, changing his batting stance, his swing path and his approach to the plate. These adjustments improved his average against left-handed pitchers to .278/.358/.471 in 2011 compared to his previous high of .234/.312/.317 in 2008. Gordon hit well and got on base enough for manager Ned Yost to make him the lead-off hitter. Gordon also worked on his outfield skills, like fielding balls hit to the outfield during batting practice. This led to Gordon being more comfortable in left field, having more time for the ball to come to him and make plays.

But will Gordon’s performance carry over to 2012? Seitzer worked with Gordon during the off-season and wants him to cut down on strikeouts. Gordon’s 2012 spring training numbers are .426/.476/.685, which are good, but it’s the regular season that matters. It does appear Gordon has found his stride and if he stays healthy, 2012 could be like 2011.

Another question is will he stay with the Royals? Gordon recently signed a one-year deal for $4.775 million, avoiding arbitration. The Royals made a long-term offer to Gordon’s agent, Casey Close, but the discussions are on hold. Gordon becomes a free agent in 2014 and with Gordon’s breakout 2011 season, the Royals would like to sign Gordon to a long-term deal. But if Gordon continues to play well, will the lure of free agency be too much? If the Royals can’t sign Gordon to a long-term contract in 2013, he’s likely to become a free agent.

Alex Gordon has become the player the Royals and their fans expected him to be. It just took a few years, a position change and hard work by Gordon and the coaches to get there. Gordon will not be the next George Brett. He’s going to be the next Alex Gordon.

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