If you spent the winter fretting over whether Royals outfielder Alex Gordon was going to come back to Kansas City or retire, this past week’s news that Gordon was returning on a one-year, $4 million dollar deal should have been a relief. Gordon has been with the organization since he was drafted by Kansas City back in 2005 and has been in the big leagues (outside of a few trips to the minors) since 2007. Gordon is the link between the past and the future, a man who has been around longer than even GM Dayton Moore. When you think of the Royals over the last dozen years, you probably think of Gordon.
Gordon is everything that is good about this organization. Whether it’s the charity work, the countless hours spent on honing his game, the learning curve of leaving third base behind to roam the outfield while at a career crossroad, the defense in left field, the home runs in the postseason and even the struggles over the last four seasons, Alex Gordon has been a constant and the closest thing they have had to George Brett since he retired in 1993.
With all that said, not everyone is happy that Gordon is coming back. Some will argue that a man who is entering his age 36 season will just hold back a younger player who could receive valuable playing time this season if Gordo had stayed home. Some will point out that his best offensive season since 2016 was last year, and even then he could only muster an OPS+ of 96, which is just a smidge under league average. Some will say it is time to move on and let the past stay in the past, as a new era of Kansas City Royals baseball is getting ready to begin.
But I’m not one of those people. I actually think the best thing for the Royals this season is for Gordon to be in tow. To me, having Gordon back gives this organization some stability as they maneuver into uncharted waters with a new owner and a new manager. To me, the script for the Royals this season just wouldn’t feel right without Alex out in left field.
So today, let’s weigh the positives and negatives of this signing. There are easily a nice dose of both and I will even admit that I see some of what the naysayers are saying when they view this as a poor signing. So let’s take off the “fan” hat for just a moment and put on our “subjective” hat and dissect the return of Alex Gordon.
First let’s look at Alex’s offense. As I said earlier, he did post what I will generously list as a league average season offensively in 2019. With that being said, he did improve his strike out rate, he saw a slight increase in his power numbers (including ISO) and improved his on base stats. But it doesn’t change the fact that at 36 years old, Gordon is a league average hitter at best and history has shown us that most players are likely to regress moving forward rather than improve. He will get on base at a decent clip, provide some power off and on, but his days of being an offensive force are essentially over.
Is Gordon blocking a younger player from getting quality playing time? This is a bit harder to really estimate, but there are two younger players (Brett Phillips and Bubba Starling) who an argument could be made would receive playing time if Gordon had not re-signed.
At this point, it’s not really known if Starling would receive the extra playing time no matter what. Bubba got a chance to show what he could do the last few months of 2019, and while defensively he might be the Royals best in the outfield, offensively he struggled. Over 197 plate appearances, Starling put up an OPS+ of 50 (league average is 100) and posted a negative WAR from both Baseball Reference and Fangraphs. Add in that he has only had two minor league seasons where he was an above average hitter, and it just appears that Starling is better suited to being a 4th outfielder or defensive replacement.
When it comes to Brett Phillips, there is at the least an argument that he should receive more playing time. Phillips struggled again in the big leagues in 2019 (.138/.247/.262, 35 OPS+), but showed some progress in AAA. From June 1 to August 13, Phillips hit .277/.404/.613 over 238 plate appearances and while he still struck out a decent amount (52 times over 58 games), he also walked 40 times and combined for 28 extra base hits.
The changes didn’t really transfer over during his time in the big leagues last year, but he did enough to at least get an audition at some point in 2020. Gordon being back in the picture might hinder that a bit, but you can say the same thing when the Royals acquired Maikel Franco and moved Hunter Dozier to right field. If the Royals were confident in Phillips, Franco wouldn’t have been signed. Gordon coming back appears to have been expected all along, so his return doesn’t appear to be the one blocking Phillips from playing time.
Gordon’s defense is still a plus for the team, as shown by him winning another Gold Glove award this offseason. He isn’t quite the defender he was in his prime, but he is still considered among the elite at his position. He might be a step or two slower, but he makes up for it with positioning and knowing how the ball moves as it makes its way to left field.
More than anything, it feels that Gordon is at a point in his tenure in Kansas City where he decides his own fate. You can’t blame the front office for wanting Gordon to stay in the fold, as his leadership and work ethic alone gives him value to the organization. There might not be any better stories than the ones told by younger players who want to prove themselves by showing up early in spring training and proving to management their dedication to making the team…only to find Alex Gordon is already there and has been working out for awhile. Gordon is the bar to climb towards in the organization and is the model when it comes to putting your all into being a part of the Royals.
So after 13 years, Gordon should be the one to decide whether he comes or goes. He doesn’t strike me as a player who will stay past his welcome and the Royals don’t appear to be a club that would allow that to happen. Considering that Kansas City will want to keep him in the organization whenever his playing career is over, allowing him to go out on his terms seems like the smart and respectful thing to do for the guy who has only wanted to play for one team.
So while we are looking at the twilight of his career, it makes more sense to keep Gordon around than to not. We shouldn’t expect him to be any more than he has been these last few years and there is a good chance we don’t even see him take the field for more than 150 games in 2020. But considering all the reasons to let him go, keeping Gordon around feels like the right thing to do for this Royals team.
While some fans (like myself) love the numbers involved in baseball and even make suggestions based on those numbers, sometimes keeping a player around has very little to do with the statistics. Sometimes the right thing is to bring back a player who has been the core for this Royals team for the last ten years. Gordon has all the attributes that we love in our baseball players and has earned that respect.
If anything, the Houston Astros have proven over the last four months that structuring an organization based purely off of winning and losing allows for behavior that can be detrimental for any team. For as much grief as we give Dayton Moore, one of the characteristics that he should be applauded for is creating a family atmosphere within the Royals organization. Alex Gordon is the one of the wise father’s of this club and instead of looking at the possible negatives, I’m choosing to look at the positives as he makes his final turn around third base. Gordo has earned it.