Two weeks. Two weeks is all it took. Shortly before Christmas, it looked like there was almost no chance Alex Gordon would return to Kansas City. He had too big of a market, and the Royals were sticking with too small of an offer. The Royals themselves were thinking about alternatives, more affordable replacement outfielders, but they made sure to stay in touch. Gordon remained the top priority, and the Royals were willing to be patient. Now it’s safe to say it worked out for all parties involved.
According to sources, Alex Gordon and the #Royals have agreed to a mult-year deal, pending physical. Announcement likely today
— Jeffrey Flanagan (@FlannyMLB) January 6, 2016
The terms: four years, reportedly, worth $72 million. There’s no opt-out clause, and the contract is said to be somewhat backloaded, to give the current Royals a bit of additional flexibility. Now that we’ve gotten here, this appears to be a tremendous deal for the team. And I suspect Alex Gordon knows that. I also suspect he doesn’t care, because this one’s about more than just money.
As Dave quickly reviewed, an objective analysis would peg Gordon for a four-year free-agent contract worth something more like $90 – 100 million. You could make a pretty strong argument for signing Gordon for a fifth year, as well. Granted, you can’t just leave out that the Royals are giving up a would-be compensation draft pick, which matters some, but this is a market that guaranteed Mike Leake $80 million. The last several years, Gordon has been one of the best everyday players in the game. The only real negative is that he’s in his 30s, but he’s still not 32, and he works to keep himself in incredible shape. Had Gordon lingered on the market longer, he probably could’ve done better than this. Maybe he already turned down something better than this. But that’s just with guaranteed money in mind, and this way Gordon gets to stay where he’s been. He gets to remain with the organization that developed him, the organization that he saw genuinely go from the bottom to the top. This is the organization that will one day retire Alex Gordon’s number. The situation proved almost too comfortable to leave.
To be clear, Gordon could’ve left. This wasn’t an inevitability — if the Royals lowballed Gordon, and never budged, he would’ve gone to another team. This wasn’t Gordon re-signing for anything, and the Royals had to stretch beyond their own limits of comfort. This was still a business decision, and there was a limit to how much of a discount Gordon would’ve been willing to accept. But you have to think there’s some discount here, with Gordon’s loyalty coming into play. And now, for the rest of Gordon’s career, people will be able to talk about the time he had a chance to bolt, but stayed in place. This is going to be good for the story of Gordon’s career, and considering he’s been guaranteed $72 million, on top of all the money he’s already earned, well, a story provides immeasurable lifetime value, and at some point the dollars blur together. Gordon got enough from the Royals to make the union content, and the deal comes with so many other benefits. Even if the Royals never win it all again, they’ve built what they wanted to build, with Gordon at the center. They’re positioned now to try to do it again.
The Royals are a mid-payroll team, so they can’t afford to have too much money tied up in top-of-the-line free-agent contracts. They need to be more efficient than the Dodgers, which is why it’s particularly helpful for them to keep Gordon at a relative bargain. This helps keep their window extra window-y, and in the immediate, Gordon fills what was otherwise a gaping hole. The division is going to be winnable again. The league is going to be winnable again. The Royals just did what they wanted to do with a roster a lot like the current one. Gordon provides a jolt to keep the Royals fearsome, and now they’re looking to improve the rotation, too. They can do that, with some of the Gordon savings.
Just as a player, Gordon’s been a solidly above-average hitter for five years. He’s a lefty with pretty much no platoon split, and he didn’t show any red flags after returning from wrist surgery last season. He did have his first major injury in a long time, missing a couple months with a strained groin, and when Gordon returned he didn’t quite look like himself in September. But he looked good in the playoffs, and he’s Alex Gordon, so he should remain a good hitter and a good defender.
Obviously, he will age. He’s already started. Last year he stole just two bases, and he didn’t hit a triple. He’s unlikely to be an elite baserunner again, and he’s unlikely to maintain the extent of his defensive range in left field. But there are two things: one, Gordon shouldn’t hit the wall all of a sudden, and two, a lot of his defensive value is actually tied up in his arm, which has been the third-most valuable in the outfield of the past decade by both UZR and DRS. I don’t know how outfield arms age, compared to range, but my sense is that they should age better. Gordon should keep base coaches aware for the foreseeable future.
We can do something really simple. The last four years, Gordon has been an outfielder worth 18.6 WAR. Over the last 30 years, there have been 23 outfielders worth something within 2.5 wins of that between the ages of 28-31. Between 32-35, those same outfielders averaged 12.5 WAR. These are just the simplest possible Gordon comps, but if you projected Gordon to be worth 12.5 WAR over the next four years, you’d expect him to sign a contract worth about $100 million. You see the value right there. Gordon might not age as well as Jim Edmonds, but he doesn’t need to come even close to that.
The Royals would be happy if he aged like Mike Cameron, or maybe even like Randy Winn. Cameron’s 32-to-35 years were worth 12.5 WAR. Winn’s were worth 11.0, and Winn never really had an arm. To be totally truthful, in the long run the Royals might not really care that much at all about how Gordon ages, considering what they’ve already accomplished. That part of the story has been written in ink, but no one wants Gordon to collapse. And no one should expect Gordon to collapse. He’s too good and too committed, and the Royals love the example he provides. Mike Moustakas might be the most recent Royals player to turn his career around, but Gordon was the model for Moustakas. It’s not a bad idea to keep these players around, even if they weren’t as valuable as they are.
Gordon is a lifetime Royal, whose story is the story of the Royals, and in just about every way, he’s the perfect player for the circumstance. He’s a role model and an All-Star, local and beloved, a player who helped build a champion and a player who will help try to build another. It’s obvious to see what the Royals get out of this, and it’s a little differently obvious to see what Gordon gets out of this, too. He gets a lot of money, but he also gets to stay put, and he’s positioned himself to mean as much to the Royals organization as, say, Yadier Molina means to the Cardinals. There are fewer and fewer of these players these days, and while free agency is of course a player benefit, it also means we don’t see many players who stay. Those players just have a different feel about them, while they’re active and after they retire. Gordon has maybe given up some millions of dollars to effectively make himself a Royal for life. There’s a chance that, at some point, he might wish he had those millions of dollars. But he’s always going to have money. Money you can’t ever spend to undo a break-up.
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