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Alex Gordon and Alex Rios: AL Outfield Riser and Faller

Nearly a month into the season, the time is nigh to update the RotoGraphs preseason ranks at each position. Some have already been done, in fact. We’ll be getting to AL Outfielder Ranks Version 2.0 next week, but to tide you over in the meantime, here are a pair of Alexes — one Riser and one Faller. Consider your appetite whetted.

Alex Gordon, Royals
Mentions of Gordon in circles baseball these days have to do with one of three things: 1) the 12-10 Royals are shockingly awesome, or at least surprisingly unterrible; 2) the 27-year-old is finally “getting it”; 3) the former first-rounder is the definition of a post-hype sleeper in fantasy. Alas, chances are all three of the previous statements are false-ish. “How dare you!” you’re shouting, “Kansas City is, indeed, awesome!” Well, okay, who am I to crush an entire city’s dreams? But the dreams of the fantasy population? Sorry, no such luck.

On the strength of an 18-game hitting streak (longest active in the AL), Gordon is batting .356 and his 10 doubles are third-most in baseball. All of which makes him a good baseball player in both real life and fantasy … at the moment. In fact, given his 100% ownership (!!!) in ESPN leagues, people seem to be buying in as if rostering Gordon in fantasy leagues comes with a free pre-ordered iPad 3. Sure, he is “getting it” in so far as he’s not hitting .232 or .215, which were his batting averages the past two seasons. And sure, he’s a post-hype sleeper because he was A) supposed to be really good, B) wasn’t for a long time, and C) is doing well for now.

But this just means that if you own Gordon, you should be peddling him for some slow-starting, more-proven player (perhaps the fella below), while also asking for more in return. “But why are you recommending such rubbish?” you’re asking. Let’s start with your use of the word “rubbish” — what are you, British? Then, let’s move onto his BABIP: .437 is, simply put, unsustainable, even if Gordon has been hitting grounders 45.7% of the time he puts the ball in play (up from 36.5% career). Also worth pointing out? He has but 1 HR and his walk rate is down to 5.2%. He’s not striking out as much as he has in the past, which is good, but here’s the big takeaway: Gordon is making contact with a whopping 70.9% of pitches outside the strike zone (compared to 55.1% career), which means he’s somehow turning non-strike pitches into base hits. The operative word in that sentence was “somehow.” That’s the sort of thing that even really, really good hitters will have trouble doing regularly.

Truth is, I’d feel better about Gordon’s chances to maintain his success in the early going if he were mashing a few more homers at the expense of some average, because right now most of his value is tied up to that .356 number. Once that starts to creep down — and it will — if the homers don’t tick up to offset it, the sheen will come off, and you’ll be left with a very mediocre fantasy player. Ownable in all formats? Yes. Must starter-worthy? Maybe in 12-team leagues. So while the hot start is nice, it’s not exactly promising. If you can sell another owner that Gordon really has turned the corner — and hey, he’s also 3B-eligible in some leagues (like Yahoo!) — then I say good on you.

Alex Rios, White Sox
Monday night, Rios managed his first hit — a single of A.J. Burnett in the seventh inning — since April 17, bringing to a merciful end what had been an ugly 0-for-22 stretch. Things had gotten so bad that Ozzie Guillen gave the 30-year-old Rios Sunday off to help him fix his horribleness in one day. So hey, clearly, it worked! Aside from the putrid .165 BA and 4 RBIs on the year so far, the bigger issue with Rios is that he’s been battling a sore toe on his left foot since spring. Run! Hide!! Save yourselves!!!

But before you do any of that, consider what’s most interesting about this toe injury: He’s been dealing with it for the past five years. That tells me this is being blown out of proportion — Rios himself said the pain is “nothing that’s going to take me out of the game. I’ve had it for years.” — and being used as an excuse for his slow start. In truth, this sort of news might be what allows a smart fantasy owner to make a low-ball trade offer for the 20-20 candidate and get him at a dirt cheap price. (Perhaps Alex Gordon interests you, fed-up Rios owner?) To their credit, owners are still hanging onto him in 88% of Yahoo! leagues and 96% of ESPN leagues, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be looking to sell him faster than Apple hopes to sell the iPad 3. (No, I am not Steve Jobs.)

So why are we buying Rios? For one, his BABIP is an un-Gordon-like .197, putting him in the bottom 10 in baseball, despite hitting grounders on 50% of batted balls. His career BABIP is .314, so as those two numbers begin to reconcile — and they will — Rios will be on his way to returning to form. Another reason not to worry? His K/BB ratio is in line with career numbers, and if anything he’s walking more frequently. The big culprit in Rios’ case is that he’s falling behind in counts from pitch one and having trouble from there: In 48 plate appearances in which he faced an 0-1 count, Rios has managed just 6 hits while striking out 12 times. But his first-pitch strike percentage (63.7%) is his highest ever by a good margin, so it stands to reason that as that tapers off, he’ll start seeing more hitter’s counts, giving him more opportunities to be aggressive rather than defensive.

Is Rios a lock to turn it around? No. After all, he’s had similar stretches of heinousness before (the second half of 2009 comes to mind). And I do think it’s worth watching to see if the chronic toe injury impacts his stolen base attempts or success rate at all (he only has 2 SB so far, though to be fair, dude’s been on base about 11 times or something). In the end, his power-speed mix, combined with the benefits that come with hitting in a great hitter’s park as part of a White Sox offense that will emerge from this cold spell at some point, makes him a prime buy-low guy. So get on it.