Sunday, January 13, 2008

Royals Insider: Alex Gordon

On this edition of Royals Insider, we cast the spotlight on Kansas City Royals third baseman Alex Gordon.

Gordon, voted Baseball Prospectus' #1 Reason To Watch the Royals in 2007.

Perhaps no player in the organization holds a more vital role to the future of the franchise than the ex-University of Nebraska phenom. Gordon was widely considered one of the most talented ballplayers in college sports. During and after his junior season in Nebraska, Baseball America pegged Gordon to be selected early in the first round overall in the 2005 draft. Not only that, but Gordon had future Royal written all over him. As a child, he grew old idolizing Royals All-Stars like George Brett and Frank White, and hoped to someday hone his exceptional baseball skills in his favorite shade of blue. After Royals General Manager Allard Baird selected him second overall in the first round of the draft that season, the organization heralded him as not only a can’t miss prospect, but a future All Star third baseman. Even in 2008, the Royals hinge greatly on the future of Alex Gordon, and on the contrary, his future hinges on the Royals.

After posting an overwhelming 1.247 OPS his junior year in 211 at-bats with the Cornhuskers, Gordon entered Class-AA Wichita in the 2006 season, where he again posted phenomenal results as a third baseman. Gordon truly possessed “five-star” skills – terrific glove, an excellent arm, a keen eye at the plate, exceptional power, and speed on the base paths. Those skills translated into phenomenal results for the Wranglers, who finished 77-62, first in the Texas League North Division. Gordon began to draw instant comparisons to Royals legend and 29th greatest ballplayer (according to the Society for American Baseball Research) George Brett.

Awards, meet the Royals fans. Royals fans, meet the awards.

2000 - Appalachian League All-Star OF
2004 - Big 12 Conference Player of the Year, Big 12 Conference All-Star 3B, 1st team College All-American 3B, Summer League First-Team All-American DH
2005 - Golden Spikes Award, 1st team College All-American 3B, Big 12 Conference All-Star 3B, Baseball America College Player of the Year, Big 12 Conference Player of the Year
2006 - Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year, Baseball America 1st team Minor League All-Star 3B, Texas League Player of the Year, Double-A All-Star 3B, Double-A Player of the Year, Kansas City Royals Minor League Player of the Year, Texas League All-Star 3B

The following spring, perhaps no issue circulated more vigorously among the Royals fanbase than whether Gordon would begin the season in AAA Omaha or with Kansas City. Throughout Spring Training, Royals fans and the front office alike literally couldn’t get enough of Gordon.

“There’s some guys you can just spot in the crowd and they’ve got it,” manager Buddy Bell says. “They just have it, and that’s what Alex has. … I’d be cool as hell, too, if I had that kind of talent.”

According to Sportsnet, Gordon not only demonstrated the necessary skills to become a superstar, but had an ideal work ethic:

Has phenomenal natural hitting talent and works hard to be even better. He can go deep to any field and has the speed and smarts to steal bases.

The Royals remained open to handing Gordon the starting third base job from the beginning of Spring Training. Of course, Gordon's entering into that slot would have forced incumbent third baseman Mark Teahen - another cornerstone franchise player - to another position. The organization experimented - rather successfully, as it turned out - with using Mark Teahen as a permanent right fielder. The Royals essentially gave Gordon the mile to prove his worth:

“We’re going to give him every opportunity to make the club,” manager Buddy Bell said. “But we’ve got to make sure we do what’s best for Alex Gordon. Because if we do that, that’s what will be best for the organization — and the fans — in the long run.”

“We all know it’s not a matter of if with Alex Gordon,” general manager Dayton Moore said. “It’s a matter of when. But we don’t know how it’s going to unfold; we just don’t. We’ve just got to see how he plays.”
After posting promising numbers (.317/.419/.556 in 63 at-bats) in Spring Training, Gordon’s third base job at Kauffman Stadium was his to lose. On April 2, 2007, he was greeted with a spine-tingling standing ovation, as he stepped up to the plate with the bases loaded against Red Sox legend Curt Schilling. He proceeded to strike out in that bat. Unfortunately, the strikeout was a precursor of what was to immediately come.

In April and May, Gordon hit .173/.316/.296 and .195/.286/.299, respectively, and caused many fans to speculate whether Gordon should be sent back to AAA Omaha.

However, in June, he found his niche and appeared to turn the corner for good, connecting for a .284 batting average for the following three months. Despite a somewhat lackluster September (.244/.289/.456), Gordon had successfully completed his first full season in a big-league uniform. His final numbers are nothing to gawk at, but are respectable, all things considered:

.247/.314/.411, 15 HR, 60 RBI, 36 2B, 4 3B, 14 SB, 4 CS, 41 BB, 137 K, 87 OPS+, 134 H, 543 AB

My forecast calls for a much shinier 2008 for the future of the franchise:

GS/G: 153/154
AB: 594
H: 164
AVG: .276
OBP: .340
SLG: .486
1B: 96
2B: 39
3B: 4
HR: 25
RBI: 71
R: 65
BB: 56
K: 135
SB: 12
CS: 4
OPS+: 109

- Tremendous arm and instincts at third base; reliable glove and footwork
- Exceptional pull power, especially against finesse pitching (.266/.331/.427 in 2007)
- Terrific baserunning skills and speed (88% SB success rate in Wichita)

- Frequent swing-and-misses (137 K's in 2007; 113 K's in 2006)
- Struggles against left-handed pitching (.217/.266/.420 vs. lefties, .258/.330/.408 vs. righties in 2007)

On-field performance:
Regresses from 2007: 5%
Repeats 2007 form: 20%
Improved significantly from 2007: 45%
Enormous breakthrough (.290/.360/.540): 30%

Stays in K.C. all season: 90%
Gets demoted back to minors: 10%

Injury contingency:
Injured for 15 days or more: 5%

Job allocation:
Starting third baseman: 95%
Starting first baseman: 5%

I feel Gordon’s greatest liabilities are his ability to hit left-handed pitching and his ability to avoid the strikeout. However, those attributes are greatly overshadowed by his assets, listed above. In 2008, I predict Alex Gordon to thrust forward several steps as he progresses toward All-Star status. Essentially, the Royals will probably implement him in a similar fashion as 2007 – everyday third baseman hitting 5th or lower in the batting order. Gordon’s raw power potential, especially his pull power (to right field) will project him to be a cleanup hitter, in my opinion. The organization would probably benefit from (ideally) using the use-all-fields, contact-over-power Billy Butler in the 3-hole, followed by dead-pull Gordon in the 4-hole. However, I’m probably getting ahead of myself. Gordon has exceptional talent, and I feel he will implement his five-tool skills sooner rather than later. Manager Trey Hillman has stated he will likely use Gordon in the 7-hole, directly behind Ross Gload. Although I slightly disagree with this move, at least it might take some pressure of Gordon. He will move up the batting order as he progresses, anyway.

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