What’s Changed With Dee Gordon?

Last week, I unveiled the May Tiered Rankings for the second base position, and readers quickly zeroed in on my rankings of Dee Gordon and Aaron Hill. They believed I had placed both of them too low. One intrepid reader even took the time to pound at the keyboard and ask exasperatingly, “WHAT DOES DEE HAVE TO DO!”

While I appreciate the lack of question mark at the end of the sentence — as it would’ve resulted in an uncouth double punctuation — it’s clearly a question about which this individual feels passionately and desires a sincere answer. After all, Dee Gordon is hitting .331/.364/.441 with 24 steals. He’s the number-one ranked second baseman in ESPN leagues and the number-three overall player, behind only the Colorado duo of Charlie Blackmon and Troy Tulowitzki.

How the [insert choice expletive here] could I possibly rank Dee Gordon as a fourth-tier second baseman?

If my tiered rankings merely sought to reflect what had happened throughout the first month-plus of the season, Dee Gordon would’ve clearly been a top-tier second baseman. However, I’m attempting to treat my tiered rankings as a forward-looking exercise, which means one thing regarding the 26-year-old second baseman: what’s changed? In other words, what reason do I have to believe Dee Gordon will continue to be a top-tier fantasy option and not revert to become the same guy who hit .256/.301/.312 over the previous three seasons (669 PA)?

We can look at some standard peripheral numbers and understand nothing has changed much in terms of plate discipline. His 4.5% walk rate is lower than his career average and illustrates his free-swinging ways. However, he’s also making more contact than ever before. His 88.8% contact rate is the highest of his career and roughly equivalent to his contact rate in 2011, when he also hit over .300. But we also have to note he’s sporting a .388 BABIP, and no matter how fast one is on the basepaths, fantasy owners should expect that number to decline throughout the remainder of the season.

Granted, declining to his career average of a .323 BABIP — which should be taken with a grain of salt because of the sample size — would approximately make him a .270-.275 hitter throughout the remainder of the year. With his stolen base totals, that’s not a throwaway batting average by any means. It’s just no longer elite. And if we’re talking about someone with a .270 batting average, lots of stolen bases, decent run totals, no power, and no runs batted in, we’re not talking about an elite fantasy second baseman. At the most, we’re talking about a second baseman who can carry a single category, but who is a serious liability in a couple others. With that in mind, I think placing him somewhere in the 8-to-12 range for second basemen throughout the rest of the season is fair.

Digging deeper, I’m not convinced anything has significantly changed in terms of his approach and his ultimate outcomes. He’s hitting more ground balls and fewer fly balls, which is likely a positive development, but he’s still the same hitter he’s always been.

Check out his spray chart from 2011 through 2013:

GordonOld

Gordon used the whole field relatively well from 2011 to 2013, though he tended to pull the baseball on the infield and hit the ball to the opposite field in the outfield. Now, if we look at his spray chart from this season, we see the overarching trends remain static.

GordonNew

The most interesting aspect of the spray chart is the lack of hard-hit balls to right field. He has a couple deep to the gap in right-center, but to the dead-pull side, Gordon has hit three non-ground balls to right field. It’s great to use the opposite field, but that’s not the same thing as using the whole field. In other words, I’m not seeing anything markedly different in his spray chart than what we’ve seen over his previous three seasons in Los Angeles.

With that said, there’s movement here. His plate discipline has improved slightly, though I do think too much is being made of this as it’s not significantly different than his plate discipline numbers from a year ago. He’s said to be making better overall contact with the baseball, which seems to ring true and can be seen in his career-high ISO of .110 and his career-high 24.3% line-drive rate. However, those are all slight movements. The biggest difference is the .388 BABIP, and I’m not sure we can throw that out the window because he’s made slight improvements in other areas. The overall hitting profile and plate discipline is similar, so at best, I’m only comfortable expecting him to be slightly better than his career numbers — which is why I’m suggesting a .270-to-.275 batting average going forward is reasonable to expect.

Of course, Gordon could absolutely continue to outperform expectations. That’s always possible. When attempting to rank second basemen or attempting to project future performance, however, I’m not sure it’s helpful to assume overproduction.

Fantasy owners also have to consider the fact that Alex Guerrero is also looming in the background at Triple-A. In limited work, he’s hitting .341/.398/.588 with four homers and a .247 ISO. If Dee Gordon does struggle for a significant stretch, it’s not difficult to see the contending Dodgers turn to Guerrero for increased offensive production. He signed a four-year, $28 million contract and is performing well in Triple-A. It won’t take much for him to get a chance, even if it’s simply splitting time with Gordon in some kind of pseudo-platoon role.

That’s something else no one is talking about. Gordon is at the risk of becoming a straight-up platoon hitter at this point. I don’t want to place too much weight on such a small sample, but the difference is striking this year.

AVG OBP SLG OPS BB% K%
vs. LHP .182 .182 .242 .424 0.0% 18.2%
vs. RHP .375 .413 .500 .913 5.8% 14.9%

The Dodgers are certainly not ignorant of this fact. If he begins to struggle over the next couple months — or if he simply continues to struggle this much against lefties — the organization could bring up Guerrero to be the second baseman against lefties. Gordon would still be the strong side of any platoon that could emerge, but such an arrangement would obviously be detrimental to any fantasy value.

If I were to boil down this article into something more succinct, it’d be this: I’m not yet convinced Dee Gordon is anything significantly different than what we saw from 2011 to 2013, and he has competition standing tall behind him in Triple-A should he struggle for a stretch. I’m not going to rank a guy in the top-five when I’m not sold in the increased performance and when he’s not guaranteed the everyday role throughout the remainder of the season.

That’s far from advocating for owners to sell on Dee Gordon. If I’m an owner searching for second base help on the trade market, though, I’m not going to be willing to meet the high price tag that it will inevitably require to acquire Gordon in a trade. I’m not counting out the 26-year-old speedster. I just have significant questions that are lingering, and that’s leading me to leave him ranked about 10th or 11th in my tiered rankings.




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J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).


33 Responses to “What’s Changed With Dee Gordon?”

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  1. Free Bryan LaHair says:

    “He’s hitting more ground balls and fewer fly balls, which is likely a positive development, but he’s still the same hitter he’s always been.”

    this element alone plays a huge part in the potential success of a player like Gordon (slap hitter/speedster) and explains, and goes hand-in-hand with, his higher than average BABIP. a slap hitter that hits flyballs is no good for anybody. but a slap hitter who hits ground balls has a (potentially) more successful future looking forward and should affect his potential value in the positive column. i’m not saying elite, but a tier or two below that seems like a natural placement

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    • The Foils says:

      Yeah, but comments like that (not yours, the author’s) are useless because “more” and “fewer” contain “negligibly more” and “negligibly fewer.”

      Dee is hitting negligibly fewer fly balls and negligibly more ground balls than his career averages (a few percentage points here and there).

      More than anything, this is probably just his BABIP regressing up to his true talent level (a mid-to-low .300s, let’s say) away from the sub-.300 nonsense from his “major league pitching is scary” period.

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    • joser says:

      You’re assuming that this shift to ground balls from fly balls is something that a batter can do, and in particular that Gordon set out to do that and is succeeding at it. Another possibility is that this shift in batted ball outcomes is random variation that happens to falling in his favor at the moment.

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      • Free Bryan LaHair says:

        hitting ground balls instead of fly balls IS something that a batter can do. i’m simply giving him the benefit of the doubt that it is something he’s worked on in the offseason because that’s what i’ve read and heard and seen in the media leading up to the beginning of the season. he put on weight to help him with this as well. pitch selection. plate discipline and approach. these are all things he’s specifically been working on and that are visibly evident in how’s been playing thus far.

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      • Rally squirrel says:

        Well if it’s not possible to hit more ground balls thru practice then Whitey Herzog wouldn’t have asked Ozzie Smith to do just that soon after coming to the Redbirds. Surely a HOF manager wouldn’t have asked a player to do something that was just random variance. The fact that he was able to lower his fly ball rate and increase his ground ball rate to take advantage of his speed should be evidence of that and I’m sure there are many other players you could find that have done this.

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  2. Emcee Peepants says:

    Since it looks like Uribe is hitting the DL, any chance they re-jigger the infield and have Hanley or Gordon play some 3B and give Guererro a shot at 2B? A quick search of some Dodger blogs makes that seem unlikely, but it can’t be worse than a Figgens/Turner 3B situation, and it gets Guererro some regular ABs.

    As a Guererro owner, Gordon’s hot start has been extremely frustrating. I assume the most likely outcome is Guererro comes up but just steals some LH ABs from Gordon for a couple weeks.

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  3. Max says:

    JP — You gloss over the across-the-board improvement Gordon has shown on a per-pitch level. His contact rates — all of them — are up and his chase rates are down. He’s hitting far more line drives (and ground balls) than he ever has, and far fewer fly balls (and pop-ups). So, he’s making more contact and making better contact. While his walk rate is down, the fact that he’s chasing pitches at a career low shows that’s not really his fault. He’s also striking out less.

    If you’re looking for reasons for improvement, there was a change in process in the offseason. Gordon gained 15 pounds to his small frame, which would explain his ability to hit the ball with greater authority. This isn’t just a random hot streak — this is a young player getting stronger, more experienced, and learning to play to his skill set.

    Regarding Alex Guerrero: he has no speed and reportedly shoddy defense. Who would bat leadoff if Gordon does not vs lefties? The Dodgers have no other obvious candidate.

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    • wily mo says:

      yeah, this. not many people can see the dodgers play right now, but i happen to be one of them, and on a subjective, watching-the-games level, gordon’s a completely different animal this year from what he was. totally different feel to his plate appearances. between the speed and the way he’s striking the ball now he’s become one of the most dangerous hitters on the team, and none of it looks or feels lucky.

      you can say his BABIP is .388 and that it’s likely to regress, and you can point out that his career BABIP is .323, and that’s all true, but, there’s a lot of room in between those two numbers. any regression at all does not automatically mean he will regress 100% of the way to his old levels. he’s a young player who appears to have changed some things.

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    • DT says:

      To go along with this sentiment, Eno and Jason mentioned on the podcast recently that the reason Dee Gordon (and Billy Hamilton) doesn’t walk a lot is not because of his “free swinging ways” or because he can’t take a pitch.

      Pitchers don’t want to walk a guy who is this fast. You walk Dee Gordon and that’s a double. As a pitcher, you would rather let him put it in play. He sees an abnormally high number of pitches in the zone, so he swings a lot. That’s good! You don’t want him taking strikes.

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      • Emcee Peepants says:

        But that’s the thing, he still doesn’t show a good command of the strike zone and takes a lot of strikes.

        55.4 z-swing% – 12th lowest of 181 – takes a lot of strikes
        31.4 o-swing% – 70th highest of 181 – but swings at a lot of balls

        44.1 swing% – 116th highest of 181 – passive approach overall
        53.1 zone% – 4th highest of 181 – pitchers pitch him aggressively

        The combo of being pitched aggressively, a poor command of the strike zone, and passive approach seems to indicate he could have problems as the season grinds on.

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      • Max says:

        MC PP — The numbers you list don’t demonstrate “poor command of the strike zone.” As the 70th-highest O-swing % (out of 181 qualified), that seems like quintessential “average command of the strike zone.” And his passive nature has reaped dividends in his batted ball profile: he’s making more contact and better contact without striking out with greater frequency.

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      • Max says:

        And his SwStr% is down at 5.1% (24th of 181 qualfieds — 86th percentile).

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      • Emcee Peepants says:

        That’s true, he does have excellent contact numbers and does not swing and miss much. My comment was meant more as a counterpoint to DT’s comment that he is not a free-swinger – the reason his walk rate is low (perhaps) is that he has trouble distinguishing balls and strikes – he might actually not swing enough. It appears that he might be letting too many hittable balls pass him by. If he starts swinging and presumably making good contact with those strikes (which his number indicate he should), pitchers might pitch him less aggressively, potentially leading to a lower K% and higher BB%, assuming he lays off the increased diet of balls.

        I realize this is a lot of maybes. I guess my point was I’m not sold on his long-term performance given some of his plate discipline numbers, but I do recognize a nice improvement in some areas, particularly contact.

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  4. Ruki Motomiya says:

    Something that needs to be considered is that, at least in my opinion, Dee Gordon is someone who HAS been more valuable than a fourth tier second basemen, even with his past numbers if extrapolated over a full year: Even a Dee Gordon who potentially hits like 2012 Dee Gordon is potentially useful if he steals the 60~ bases he was on pace for that year. My issue with the rankings is that if he continued at a lower pace he would still be a cut above people like Martin Prado (Only posititive in AVG, the worst hitter category to be positive in), Jedd Gyorko who shows continued decline from last year and so on. The biggest problem with Dee Gordon is simply keeping his job, but I think people need to remember Dee Gordon is young. In fact, he is younger than Guerrero! They both become FAs at the age of 30 but you get more of young years from Gordon and cheaper, so he is a good choice for the future. I would say that if anyone is gonna go, it is Juan Uribe: Either Guerrero or HanRam, one of which has reported shaky D and the other one we know does, slides over to 3B and if it is HanRam then Dee Gordon takes over SS, his previous position (He was only a bit below average there aside from 2012). With Uribe on the DL, we might already see that happening. The BABIP luck dragons will come down, though I expect his new profile combined with the recipe for high BABIP it will be a bit higher than his career average (.330-.335?)

    Ultimately, though, that is why I personally felt Dee Gordon in the 4th tier was messed up, not because his breakout means he should be Top Five but because a Dee Gordon who reverts more to what his career rate is, when he has shown even in crappy years a great SB clip, should be Tier Three, especially when you factor in he has much more upside than most of Tier Four even if he has risk.

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    • Emcee Peepants says:

      I think they key is that although his numbers would be valuable if extrapolated over a full year (kind of a modern day Tom Goodwin), they have to be extrapolated because he has never been able to hold down a full time job, because he can’t hit. You could argue that if the Gordon from 2012 suddenly shows up, he would cease getting ABs, and cease being valuable at all.

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      • Ruki Motomiya says:

        True. At the same time, though, 2012 Dee Gordon was the worst version of Dee Gordon, so it depends on if he shows up as his worst. You could always have a guy on the bench just in case: 2012 Dee Gordon + a bench guy if Dee is benched is also good.

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  5. OaktownSteve says:

    I know that qualitative stuff is frowned upon here, and often rightly so, but one thing that I think has changed with Dee is he just looks physically stronger. I’ve already seen him hit more balls with MLB authority than in the last couple years combined. One of the things that I know is toughest to quantify is quality of contact as opposed to just contact rates, but I feel like there are some numbers out there that do try to quantify how hard guys hit the ball, bat speed etc. I’d be surprised if some of the eyeball stuff that I see with Gordon as far as strength and how hard he’s hitting the ball aren’t reflected in whatever metrics are available to that end.

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  6. GoNats says:

    It’s only one game but I went to a Nats/Dodgers game the other night and Gordon hit a ball in the gap that was hit hard – it was a legitimate double — and yet he then used his blazing speed to turn what should have been a double for almost anybody else into an easy triple. Say what you want about the guy, but it was pretty impressive.

    I think this might be one where the BABIP/sabermetrics side needs to reconcile with the scouting side. I’m just one guy seeing him at one game, but he looked pretty strong to me, and that speed definitely makes him dangerous. He didn’t look like a guy who is getting lucky and could be hitting .200 as easily as he’s hitting .330.

    I believe he will almost certainly regress in batting average — there is nothing to suggest he suddenly has become a .330 hitter — but what if that means he’s a .270 hitter with 80 SB potential? That still makes him a fantasy monster. I have a hard time discounting him, based on what I saw.

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  7. Milad says:

    Saying that Dee Gordon is only above average in one category out of 5 is useless as it ignores the significance of the one category he is elite in. He is far and away the best in the steals category, which is a category with very few players carrying the load in fantasy. The fact that he doesnt hurt you in average or runs makes him palatable for the many standard deviations above average he is in the steals category. I think taking that mindset would make one value Gordon much more than this article does by only looking at his swing rates, basically.

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  8. David says:

    dee Gordon in h2h is a beast because even if his numbers revert to previous forms, he can almost single-handedly win a category at the expense of 1 roster position.

    I know this is rotographs, but dee Gordon is like Dennis rodman right now. they should call dee the worm, because he’s always dirty…and also really skinny.

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  9. Matt says:

    Just double down on a stubborn oversight. Good job. This is the roto side I thought. And Dee is a beast. There was a small admission that the author may have underestimated Dee, but talk about pulling teeth…

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  10. Brian says:

    Wow, I’ve never ever seen a column on Rotographs where the writer worked so hard to ignore the facts and double down. I certainly wouldn’t want something like this with my name on it.

    “However, he’s also making more contact than ever before.”

    Hand-waved away by author… for some reason.

    “He’s hitting more ground balls and fewer fly balls, which is likely a positive development, but he’s still the same hitter he’s always been.”

    Hand-waved away by author… why?

    “His plate discipline has improved slightly, though I do think too much is being made of this.”

    Wat.

    “He’s said to be making better overall contact with the baseball, which seems to ring true and can be seen in his career-high ISO of .110 and his career-high 24.3% line-drive rate. However, those are all slight movements.”

    WAT.

    “Gordon is at the risk of becoming a straight-up platoon hitter at this point. I don’t want to place too much weight on such a small sample..”

    But I will, because I have no argument. He is better vs RHP in his career (716/489) but let’s not lose our minds over 33 PA in 2014.

    Ultimately, author pins his thesis here:
    “With his stolen base totals, that’s not a throwaway batting average by any means. It’s just no longer elite. And if we’re talking about someone with a .270 batting average, lots of stolen bases, decent run totals, no power, and no runs batted in, we’re not talking about an elite fantasy second baseman.”

    Okay, maybe not. I think even if we are pessimistic, Dee will hit closer to his updated ZIPS (.283/.327/.366) than his ROS ZIPS … but even if he hit his ROS ZIPS, he’s forecast for 38 more bags.

    But Altuve was ranked Tier 3 and his Zips ROS isn’t good (.286/.327/.385) not to mention he’s not stealing as many bags as Dee. Carpenter is forecast for .272/.357/.401 with no walks and no power at all. Zobrist is hitting .271/.367/.382 this year and is 33. Even Dozier who everyone loves is hitting .238, has a ROS of .245/.314/.388 and is no guarantee to continue running.

    Dee was a .301/.360/.388 career minor league hitter. He’s simply become the guy everyone thought he would.

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    • The Foils says:

      Great comment.

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    • J.P. Breen says:

      Other than purposefully clipping certain sentences that don’t fit your argument, here are some responses:

      I mentioned he’s hitting more ground balls and more line drives, but he’s still the same hitter. That’s the entire point of the discussion of the spray chart. His ground-ball rate is just slightly above his career average, and line drive percentage isn’t reliable. It’s not a huge movement, which is why I’m not pinning his entire improvement on that fact.

      Why am I not getting more excited about his plate discipline? His O-Swing% moved two percent. That’s not significant, and his swinging-strike rate moved 0.3% from last season. When I say it’s a slight improvement, I mean a slight improvement.

      If I wasn’t taking into consideration these improvements at all, I wouldn’t be saying he’s likely to be a .270-.275 hitter throughout the remainder of the season. I’m suggesting he isn’t a completely different hitter. He’s marginally improved from his last couple seasons.

      Why is Altuve ranked in the third tier and not Gordon? Because Altuve has more track record and Altuve isn’t at risk of losing his job to anyone, much less becoming a kind of platoon hitter.

      I get it, people want to look at the very marginal improvements in certain areas and utilize those to explain huge gains in numbers. The marginal improvements in plate discipline and batted ball data should lead to marginal improvements in rest-of-season numbers — which seems to be something you’re not disagreeing with.

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      • Brian says:

        Thanks for the response. I don’t think I unfairly clipped your article — I mean, you didn’t point out any place that something was distorted or taken out of context.

        Your premise is not that crazy: “If I wasn’t taking into consideration these improvements at all, I wouldn’t be saying he’s likely to be a .270-.275 hitter throughout the remainder of the season. I’m suggesting he isn’t a completely different hitter. He’s marginally improved from his last couple seasons.” You’re saying his improvements have been marginal and he’s not going to be better than Tier 4.

        I just happen to disagree although this comment is more on-point than the post. I think a) he’s better than .270 and b) that even if he wasn’t he’s better than the guys I listed in my post above.

        Dee’s LD% went from 20% to 24%. His IFFB% is down from 14% career to 10%. His Contact % on pitches in the zone is up from 88.5% last year and 91% career to 94.3% this year. That zone contact % is good for #15 in baseball. The LD% is #27 in baseball out of 181.

        Even if he’s not .330 good (he’s not) he’s still very good and I would be surprised if he was one short slump away from losing his job, even if Guerrero is raking so far.

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  11. Josh says:

    from a fantasy perspective, it’s important that he’s earned some rope as their leadoff hitter. he started the season htiting 8th and this must be factored into his current value.

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  12. dingus says:

    According to fangraph articles about metric stabilization, Dee’s improvement in K%, LD% and contact rate are worthy of consideration now (without SSS caveat).

    Also giving support to the ‘older/stronger’ argument, his IFFB rate is half of last year. That was one thing I did notice from the spray charts…seems he has a much lower rate of popping out to the left side.

    Hard to believe my buddy picked him up off waivers early in the season. Worst drop ever??

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  13. EDogg1438 says:

    Gordon is basically average when it comes to discipline. He doesn’t walk much because 1. Pitchers don’t throw him many balls and 2. He has a very good contact rate. Those factors combine to keep his walk rate low. I’d guess that even if he had Votto-like discipline he’d still only squeak out a walk rate around 10% due to his unfearsome appearance.

    One thing that isn’t being mentioned is that in some leagues (mine included) Gordon has SS eligibility because of last year. This only serves to increase his fantasy value because if there’s one position you don’t mind a one category guy… it’s SS or 2B.

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  14. Sean says:

    Even if Gordon were to straight platoon (which he effectively did to start the year) he would get enough at-bats to steal enough bases to be scary. Most people who have Gordon didn’t actually DRAFT him, which means you probably already have options you can start when Gordon faces a lefty.

    Guerrero is looming, but he wasn’t put in AAA due to his bat, but rather his glove. So pointing to his nice numbers in the PCL is kind of meaningless. It would be more striking if he was struggling there. The question is how well he is progressing with the glove. Gordon is no great shakes in the field either, but he seems like he can handle 2B.

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