Alex Gordon has been a really good, perhaps slightly underrated, player over the last five seasons for the Kansas City Royals. An untimely injury limited his role during this most recent regular season, but he was a big part of the club’s playoff runs each of the past two seasons and played a major role in Kansas City’s first World Series title in 30 years. Thanks to a team-friendly contract extension after his breakout 2011 season, the Royals have paid him just $37.5 million over the last four years, including two potential years of free agency. Although Gordon, heading into his age-32 season, is not reaching free agency at an ideal age, given his production he is still likely to receive a deal totaling around $100 million. The question for the Royals and the rest of the league is, will he be worth that kind of money into his mid-30s?
Gordon has hardly gone unnoticed as one of the best, if not the best, player on the two-time American League champion and reigning World Series titleholder. However, due to the way he’s produced his value — including above-average defense in an outfield corner — it’s possible that Gordon is slightly underrated heading into free agency. Over the last five seasons, he has been one of the very best players in baseball, as evidenced by the WAR leader chart below.
The next five players on that list are Josh Donaldson, Dustin Pedroia, Jason Heyward, Evan Longoria, and Giancarlo Stanton. Gordon has put up a well-above average 123 wRC+ during that time after struggling from 2007 to 2010 as he adjusted to major league pitching following just one full season in the minors. Alex Gordon and Jason Heyward’s name have come up together this offseason as similar players for good reason.
Both Heyward and Gordon are corner outfielders who complement their above-average offense with very good defense. Both players are free agents for the first time this offseason. However, the price tag associated with Heyward has been roughly double that of Gordon. The two had different 2015 seasons: Heyward played well all season long while Gordon had a groin injury that limited him to 104 games — this, after averaging 156 games per year over the previous four seasons. While the 2015 season might impact Gordon’s price tag some, the big difference is their age: Gordon is five years older than Heyward.
Gordon is a good player, but no team is buying his fantastic last five years, but rather the next five, and his age-32 through age-36 seasons should be less impressive than the five which have preceded them. Even with those limitations, it’s possible that the market is slightly undervaluing Gordon’s potential value.
Given his age, Gordon’s recent years are more likely to be indicative of his current abilities than his struggles more than a half-decade ago. As a result, I looked for corner outfielders within five WAR of Gordon’s 25.1 WAR from their age-27 through their age-31 seasons who also recorded a plate-appearance total within 20% of Gordon’s mark of 3,176. Then I looked at those, like Gordon, who had a positive defensive value. After removing players not within three wins above replacement of Gordon’s 9.4 during the age-30 and age-31 seasons, eight players remained.
Overall, these players were little better on offense than Gordon and a bit behind on defense, but the values overall run pretty close together and every one of these players is a corner outfielder like Gordon. That group’s results from age-32 through age-36 were pretty impressive.
The group as a whole loses on average about a win on offense and a win on defense per season over the course of the five years, but given the group’s starting place (about five wins per season, in each case) remained roughly three-win players over their age-32 to age-36 season. Pretty impressive. Taking the average of that group at 15.4 WAR and using the cost of a win at $8 million along with 5% inflation reveals a value of roughly $136.5 million over the next five years.
(Out of curiosity, I also ran the numbers for a group of corner outfielders whose defense more closely resembled Gordon’s. That group was interesting in that Melvin Mora, Roberto Clemente, Ichiro Suzuki, and Rickey Henderson all produced good-to-great five-year periods while another five players combined for 3.7 WAR total over five seasons.)
Looking at comps is one way to estimate the value of a contract. Another way is to simply start with the present and simply assume a natural decline. Using that method beginning with Gordon’s Steamer projection of 3.5 WAR produces the following table.
|2016||32||3.5||$8.0 M||$28.0 M|
|2017||33||3.0||$8.4 M||$25.2 M|
|2018||34||2.5||$8.8 M||$22.1 M|
|2019||35||2.0||$9.3 M||$18.5 M|
|2020||36||1.5||$9.7 M||$14.6 M|
Much of the talk around Gordon has dealt with a four- or five-year contract. Both tables above indicate he might be worth a bit more than that. Using the comps and the natural decline methods above, here is what Gordon might be worth from four-to-seven years from now.
|Comps||$116.9 M||$136.5 M||$149.6 M||$155.3 M|
|Natural Decline||$93.8 M||$108.4 M||$118.6 M||$121.2 M|
|AVERAGE||$105.4 M||$122.5 M||$134.1 M||$138.3 M|
A seven-year contract for Gordon does not make a lot of sense, but if the FanGraphs crowd is correct and Gordon receives a five-year contract for $90 million or even Dave Cameron’s four year, $92 million prediction, that represent be a decent value. The Royals were in the middle-tier when it came to payroll last season and given attendance and another World Series run, Gordon might fit the team very well moving forward. There is risk in signing any player in his 30s to a long-term contract, and Gordon is no different. However, it is possible that either Gordon’s age or his injury this past season is keeping his price down. In free agency, Gordon looks to be a decent bet to fulfill the obligations of his contract in a manner with which his team will be quite pleased.
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