He’s a World Series hero, one of the best players in franchise history and remains one of the best defenders in left field in all of baseball. And yet, Alex Gordon was nearly unplayable for a good portion of the 2017 season because his bat was so anemic. He finished the season hitting .208/.293/.315 with a .223 TAv and was worth -0.7 WARP, and that’s with his fantastic defense. He finished the season with five straight hitless games, but still hit .278/.373/.514 over his final 24 games and 83 plate appearances giving some hope that maybe he figured something out. Then he talked in the offseason about going to the plate with a plan and Royals fans had to at least dream that the final two years of his deal would be much better than the first two.
Now we’re in the home stretch of spring training and he’s 4 for 43 with one extra base hit and just four walks in 50 plate appearances. And no, spring training stats don’t mean much, but if you’ve watched him play, he looks like the flaccid hitter we saw for the majority of 2017, but maybe a little bit worse somehow. If you’re looking for a silver lining, he’s doing it against more quality competition than others, so at least he’s not routinely looking horrible against A-ball pitchers. That’s a very dim silver lining.
On last night’s broadcast, the TV gang was interviewing Ned Yost during and he mentioned that he’d talked to Gordon about going to minor league camp to get 12 at bats a game until he gets his swing right. That’s the first step, and maybe one they should have done a few days ago because camp breaks after Sunday’s game, so he’d only have a few days to do it. He could stay in Arizona to get at bats in games right up through March 28, but it’s hard to imagine the Royals playing an exhibition in Omaha and not bringing Gordon to play in front of his hometown fans. Either way, that’s step one.
But what happens if this continues? The contract the Royals signed him to puts them in a really bad spot. What’s done is done and all that, but he’s owed a full $20 million this year and $20 million next year. It’s hard for any team to just turn their back on that and make a guy a part-time player at best. For a team where that’s 15 percent of the payroll, it’s probably even harder, even if it’s likely the right decision to make. And to make matters even more difficult, at some point, the defense isn’t going to be there either as he ages. One of the things that made him a good bet on his contract is the physical condition he’s in, but everybody ages eventually. It may be that he doesn’t lose any defensive ability before the deal is done, but if he even loses another half-step, what value does he bring other than leadership and an example of how to take care of yourself?
This could all be a moot point. Maybe this is just a horrible slump and he’ll pull out of it and be fine once he does. He’s always been a streaky hitter. Of course, that doesn’t exactly seem likely given that he’s been in this slump for the better part of two years. But still, the time in minor league camp leading off every inning could be beneficial. It seems like he’s slotted to hit in the bottom of the order again, so if he can just pull a .240/.320/.380 type line, that would be acceptable with his defense. That’s a significant boost from last year, but we can dream.
The reality is that Jorge Bonifacio’s suspension buys Gordon a little time because of the options in the outfield. With Jon Jay and Jorge Soler manning the other two spots, Gordon’s defense becomes even more important. I’d give him the 80 games Bonifacio is out to see what he can do, to see if he can become useful at the plate once again. If he’s hitting the way he has this spring and the way he did last season, the Royals need to do what they should have done last year when they acquired Melky Cabrera and sit him down and make him the fourth outfielder. He can take over for Soler in the eighth inning of games the Royals are leading and take at bats in some blowouts. Get him a start here and there against some less than stellar right-handed arms to hopefully get him some confidence and hope for the best.
It’s hard to imagine the Royals moving on from Gordon during this season because of the contract. That means they need to do everything they can to get some value out of him while he’s still on the team for at least this season. Let’s see what happens in these first 80 games. Stranger things have happened than Gordon getting back to close to competent at the plate. He’s certainly a hard enough worker. After that, though? It’s anyone’s guess. And it’s really hard to see a franchise icon going out like this.