The Royals should re-sign Alex Gordon. Full stop.
For some of you, that’s enough for me to say and you’re convinced. For others, you’ll never agree. If you’re on the fence, let me share my thought process behind my statement.
Gordon has filled so many roles in Kansas City. The rookie and savior, the bust, the quiet leader, the late-inning hero. He arrived with much fanfare and a College Player of the Year Award and Minor League Player of the Year Award on his resume. He was expected to be a franchise player and, after a couple of years battling injuries and ineffectiveness, he became one, reinventing himself in the process.
As a free agent, Gordon expects to make anywhere from $75 to $100 million over the next five or six years (possibly more if the outfield market starts going crazy). It would be the biggest contract in Royals history, and who better than Gordon to have it?
Here’s my argument for Gordon: he’s been a productive hitter for the past five years, and provides excellent outfield defense. He’s a team leader with a great work ethic. He’s as high character as you can probably find in baseball. He has plate discipline, enough power, makes good contact, is as smart a baserunner as you’ll find, and combines preparation and hustle to do all the little things that old school fans love. If I had a son, I’d like him to play like Alex Gordon.
The Royals have strung together three straight winning seasons, and will return most of the same group that won the World Series in 2015. Why break up a good thing? Right now, the Royals have a need in left field. Alex Gordon plays left field. Other options – Dexter Fowler, Yoenis Cespedes, Justin Upton – are also available, but Cespedes and Upton will command larger salaries than what Gordon is expected to sign for, and Fowler would cost a draft pick if the Royals signed him (and may still be in the same price range). The Royals aren’t realistically in the Cespedes or Upton market, and might be in the Fowler market, but other than Gordon, their options are internal (Jarrod Dyson or Paulo Orlando, most likely), lesser players available as free agents (Gerardo Parra, Denard Span, neither of whom set my world on fire), or are trade possibilities (Nick Markakis has been mentioned, as has Todd Frazier as an outfield convert. Carlos Gonzalez has been brought up as well.) None of these make as much sense as re-signing Alex Gordon.
First, for consideration, there is cost. MLBTradeRumors.com projected the following contracts for the big four:
- Upton, 7 years, $147 million
- Cespedes, 6 years, $140 million
- Gordon, 5 years, $105 million
- Fowler, 4 years, $60 million
Food for thought: MLBTR also projected 10 years and $200 million for Jason Heyward, who signed for 8 years and $184 million, but reportedly took less than was offered by other teams to go to the Cubs. If his taking less sets the market, it’s possible each of the above four will have a slightly lowered final deal. Shortly after Heyward agreed to his deal, Jerry Crasnick of ESPN suggested that Gordon might land in the 5 year/$75-80 million range. If so, that’s a great deal for any team, but especially the Royals. He’s at least expected to get the lowest deal when compared to Upton and Cespedes, at least.
According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Royals currently are on the hook for about $85 million in payroll for 2016 before arbitration cases finish up. They may end up with $18 to $20 million going to arbitration-eligible players this year. Gordon plus that group would make the Royals’ payroll around $120 million. In 2015, they opened the season with a $112 million payroll and added salaries for Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto at the trade deadline. They can handle an increase after back-to-back pennants.
“But that’s too much!” they cry. “What about the future?!” they plead. “The Royals can’t get caught in a big contract that limits them later!”
These are some of the reasons given for letting Gordon go, and the concern is fine. The Royals are a team limited by their market. Ever since Ewing Kauffman died and baseball contracts boomed, this has been true. However, the Royals just finished a championship season during which they set a new attendance record and crushed TV ratings. If there was ever a time for the Royals to spend, it is now.
All four will be set for free agency after 2017. The opportunity to sustain success is now. Signing Gordon keeps the main group together for two more seasons with a chance to reach the playoffs again. The Royals have adopted a policy recently for what I call “hit and run” contracts – one- or two-year deals that have options, but don’t tie them into anything long-term. I’d suggest that it’s this policy that puts them in position to make the five-year offer to Gordon. They won’t be locked in on many others after 2017, so Gordon’s contract will not be a big hit on the overall team payroll, unless the Royals extend Edinson Volquez, Kendrys Morales, Wade Davis, Luke Hochevar, Omar Infante, Kris Medlen, Chris Young, Kelvin Herrera, Danny Duffy, and Jason Vargas, or the aforementioned younger hitters.
In fact, here’s a list of the players the Royals have committed to contracts for 2018:
- Joakim Soria: $8 million
- Salvador Perez: $3.75 million option (which they’ll pick up unless he’s drastically injured before then)
- Yordano Ventura: $3.25 million
- Others like Christian Colon, Louis Coleman, Cheslor Cuthbert would be arbitration eligible.
Basically, the Royals will look far different after 2017 with all those contracts ending. Kevin Scobee at Pine Tar Press provided a detailed look at this year-by-year.
I think it’s a virtual lock that Hosmer hits free agency. Unless the Royals vastly overpay him to stay with Kansas City, he’s going to be a 28-year-old, marketable, Gold Glove first baseman with good average and power. He’s gone. Mike Moustakas has had one good season, but is a Scott Boras client like Hosmer and even if you could extend him, I’m not sure you’d want to. Escobar would be 31 at the start of 2018 and doesn’t have a bat that looks like it’s going to be worth having even if his defense holds up, plus the Royals have Raul Mondesi in the pipeline ready to take over.
But Cain is an interesting case. He’s also the most likely player I’d see the Royals signing to some sort of extension, even if only to buy out two free agency years. What the dollar figure might be, I’m not sure. Cain, as the story goes, didn’t play baseball until late into high school, got drafted, and worked his way up through the Brewers’ system before joining the Royals after the Zack Greinke trade. In 2014, he had a good year. In 2015, he had a breakout year, finishing third in AL MVP voting.
Too often, though, I’m running into people who would prioritize Cain over Gordon, when a Cain extension would run right into the same issue they have with Gordon: age. Gordon will be 32 when the 2016 season starts. Cain, in two years, could be a free agent approaching his own 32-year-old season*. Of course, a five-year deal for Gordon now is different than what would likely be a three-year deal for Cain (beyond 2017), but I’m not sure by much when it gets down to it. Regardless, I don’t think Alex Gordon at $18 million in 2018 would prevent the Royals from offering Cain good money if one was interested in retaining both.
*I think people assume that Cain is younger than he really. He got a late start, sure, but I get the impression people still think he’s 26 right now and entering his peak years, when he’s likely at his peak now. Cain is actually older than Billy Butler, who’s already on the downslope of his career.
This is the part where I feel like I have to dig into Cain and give the impression that I don’t like him as a player. Cain’s breakout season in 2015 saw him hit .307/.361/.477 with 34 doubles and 16 homers. He added Gold Glove caliber defense (he should have at least been among the top three nominated for the award in center field). That’s a strong year, for sure.
From 2011 through 2015, Alex Gordon hit .281/.359/.450 with an average of 35 doubles and 18 homers per season. Gordon’s average season is not far from Cain’s peak (well, presumably his peak) season. Cain still provides a lot of defensive value, but defense can decline quickly with age, so while that particular fate will likely lead to Gordon’s defensive value dropping over the next few years, Cain probably won’t be immune either. Maybe Cain can hit enough to move to right field, while Gordon could move to first in 2018 or 2019 after Hosmer departs. Either way, I think Gordon is more likely of the two to add power as he ages, which could help him make up for declining defense. If, in three years, Cain falls back to being a 6-10 homer guy and has to move to a corner spot, he won’t be nearly as valuable as he is today. It’s possible that in two years, Cain will be at the center of the same debate we’re having about Gordon and the viability of adding years to a 32-year-old’s tenure, but with a much different team to potentially return to.
As for trades, the Royals may be able to explore that avenue if the interested parties are more likely to want lower level prospects instead of some of the bigger names. Players like Mondesi, Kyle Zimmer, Bubba Starling, and Miguel Almonte have either made their major league debuts by now or are likely to in 2016, and will be the guys who take the baton after Hosmer, et al leave. That’s also why they can’t be involved in a trade.
Here’s a scenario I see as very likely if the Royals opt to trade for an outfielder: the Royals deal Almonte and another prospect or two for Todd Frazier, or Nick Markakis, or Carlos Gonzalez. Or maybe they trade two of the four, or three. They’ll have to surrender prospects as well as payroll for any of these players (and if you want the Rockies to eat, say, $10 million in a Gonzalez deal, you probably give up more and/or better prospects than if you took on the whole remaining contract). Down the line, in 2018 and beyond, the Royals may be faced with a choice of a mediocre starting pitcher or signing a free agent because Zimmer is now a Rockie. Or they have to pay an aged Escobar eight figures because Mondesi is a Red and unable to take over at short. For any near-MLB-ready prospect they deal today, they likely have to go pay an average-ish veteran more money to provide the same or similar production. If the goal of avoiding signing Gordon to a deal is to avoid committing money to average or old players, trading your prospects away doesn’t seem like the way to avoid that, because you end up paying for it by finding guys who have to replace the league-minimum rookie deals that got traded way.
I should offer a couple of concessions. I recognize that after a significant groin injury, Gordon may not have the same defensive and baserunning ability as he’s had to this point in his career. If it’s a five-year deal, he’ll be 36 years old at the end of it. Most players are really in their twilight by that point. I know it’s a risk, but I don’t mind it. Gordon is in ridiculous shape, and his injuries haven’t been to his knees, nor have they been chronic or reoccuring. His contract will carry him through nto his post-peak years, but that’s not a death sentence to special players, and Gordon is a special player.
I also recognize that I’m indulging the sentimental baseball fan in me by hoping for a Gordon return. I remember reading things when I was younger about George Brett asking for a trade in 1990 and at the time it was a terrible feeling to think my favorite player may not continue to be a Royal. I feel the same way about Gordon. He fits this team so well and was such an important part to their resurgence that he’s got a chance to be in the discussion for a retired number with the Royals. The Royals are stingy with their retired numbers (they also haven’t had a lot of great players since the 1980s) but five more years of Gordon, some more playoff games – why not? He can join George Brett and Frank White as legends with this franchise, and who wouldn’t enjoy that?
This is Gordon’s one shot for a free agent contract. He already gave the Royals a couple of years via the extension he signed in March 2012. He’s earned a shot at a big payday. I just say it should be with the Royals.
So here’s my proposal (and I hate coming up with hypothetical contracts and trade offers, for the record). You offer Alex Gordon the following:
- Four guaranteed years at an average value of $18 million a year
- A fifth year that is a vested option and is enacted if Gordon reaches 450 plate appearances in 2019, the fourth year of the deal. This would be another $18 million season. If Gordon doesn’t reach 450 plate appearances, the vesting option becomes a team option with a buyout of $6-8 million.
- A sixth year as a mutual option if the vesting/team option is picked up. Give this the same buyout figure.
For the Royals, they get the opportunity to keep Gordon for the two years along with the rest of the core. They also get to retain their prospects and draft picks that would otherwise be lost to other teams after trades or signing Fowler (who would cost the Royals their first round draft pick). They get a lot of goodwill for retaining a franchise player, as well. By going with a vesting option, they provide some insurance against injury or breakdown.
For Gordon, he gets a guaranteed 4/$72 million plus a guarantee that the fifth year will be either a buyout or picked up. It’s either the 5/90 million he’s likely after right now, or it’s 4/$78-80 million with the buyout. And if he stays healthy and the option vests, he’ll end up cashing in the last year buyout, too. Financially, he’s getting what he wants, and the Royals only get stuck paying big if he produces. Oh what a pity that would be.
So tl;dr – to sum up:
- I think the Royals can afford Gordon right now and into the future.
- The Royals are better off with Gordon involved with the next two years of the core championship group.
- While I’d like to get everyone on an extension, the commonly-proposed candidates are unlikely to extend anyway, and Gordon’s hypothetical contract doesn’t limit the Royals to extend anyone anyway.
- If they don’t extend Hosmer, I’m pretty sure Gordon’s playing first base by some point in 2018, unless he’s still doing fine in left.
- If the choice is Gordon now or Cain possibly but we’re not sure, go with Gordon and sort it out later.
- Maybe Carlos Gonzalez would be available, but if you’re going after him to avoid a bad contract after 2017, you’re probably going to have to pay out to veterans to fill spots your expected rookies can’t fill now because they got traded for Carlos Gonzalez.
- Get creative with the Gordon offer and it can be a good win for both sides. While Gordon’s age may be troubling, it’s not a guarantee that he’ll fall off a cliff when he hits 34.
- It’s Alex Gordon and he’s awesome.