After four frustrating seasons marred by hip and thumb injuries, Alex Gordon moved from third base to left field in 2011 and finally hit like the Royals expected him to when they chose him over the likes of Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun and Troy Tulowitzki in the 2005 draft. Gordon batted .303/.376/.502 and had a 140 OPS+, improving from his .244/.328/.405 triple-slash and 95 OPS+ from 2007-10.
Now, as Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal notes, the question becomes whether Gordon will be in K.C. past 2013. The Royals hope to negotiate a long-term deal with the 28-year-old, who will earn $4.78 million through arbitration this year. But such a pact could be the largest in club history:
Gordon might not command $100 million – his track record is shorter than those of Zimmerman, Braun and Tulowitzki. But he almost certainly will want more than $55 million, the previous club record shared by Gil Meche and Mike Sweeney.
Negotiations for an extension are in the early stages, but expected to intensify later this spring, major-league sources say.
The Royals might prefer to wait and see if Gordon can repeat his stellar 2011 season. But by next off-season, Gordon will be only one year away from free agency and perhaps more eager to test the open market.
Here's the issue that Royals GM Dayton Moore must ponder: Should he take a patient approach to negotiating a long-term deal with Gordon, waiting to confirm that he's more the player we saw in 2011 than in years past, or should he be blowing up agent Casey Close's cell to get this done before spring training ends? There's risk both ways. Waiting could leave Gordon one year from a mega pay day should he keep raking, and locking him up now could mean giving him a star's salary during those free agent years only to see him settle in as a good, not great player.
Moore's decision may come down to how much weight he puts in Gordon's 2011 breakout at the plate. So, is Gordon the top-10-type hitter of 2011 or the also-ran of 2007-10? The answer is probably, "neither." Most of the projection systems -- ZiPS, Bill James and Oliver among them -- have Gordon hitting near .280, getting on base at a .360 clip and slugging around .460.
That's plenty valuable, particularly from a Gold Glover who figures to save some runs in the outfield, but a step down from this past year. While Gordon began hitting breaking stuff with authority in 2011, he almost assuredly won't get as many hits on bloops and bleeders in 2012.
First, the good. Gordon started driving curveballs and sliders in 2011, boosting his average fly ball distance on breaking stuff from a league average 261 feet from 2008-10 to 291 feet in 2011. Take a look at Gordon's fly ball distance by pitch location against breaking balls in 2008-10, and then last season. He started thumping curves and sliders and the knees:
Gordon placed in the top 15 among MLB batters in fly ball distance vs. breaking balls, in the same range as Matt Holliday, Albert Pujols and Joey Votto. That extra distance played a part in his slugging .423 versus curves and sliders, compared to .301 from 2008-10 and the .338 league average.
But While Gordon had more pop in his bat, he also likely got some lucky bounces. His batting average on balls in play was .380 on curves and sliders (90 points above the MLB average) and .358 overall. He had a .260 BABIP on breaking balls from 2008-10, and a .289 BABIP overall.
If Gordon is seeking the sort of franchise record deal that Rosenthal suggests, then Moore might be best off further evaluating his left fielder in 2012 rather than guaranteeing him $10-15 million per year for free agent seasons that cover his early thirties. Could Gordon continue to be the down-ballot MVP player of 2011, batting .300 with power and ranking among the game's best corner outfielders? In a perfect world, yes. But he could also regress to the .260s, suffer another injury and rate as just an average fielder with fewer runners testing his arm (which accounted for much of his defensive value). Waiting a year looks like the best course of action from here.