Prospect Watch: Nick Gordon and Post-Draft Expectations

A couple of weeks ago, I broke from the typical Prospect Watch post setup to write this, which still managed to provide thoughts on and evaluations of two players but in a more freeform space than usual. On some occasions such as that one, I find my thoughts on players get encased in larger thoughts about prospecting in general. In this installment, I bring you another, but it concerns a player of far more repute than 25-year-old A-ball pitcher Dario Alvarez or his reliever teammate Akeel Morris–I’m talking about 2014’s fifth overall draft pick, Twins shortstop prospect Nick Gordon.

Just this past evening, I took in my fourth and final game of seeing the Rookie-Advanced Elizabethton Twins this year. I managed to see the four starting pitchers I wanted to get a look at–third-rounder Michael Cederoth (whom I discussed here), 2013 fourth-rounder Stephen Gonsalves, productive 20-year-old Aussie Sam Gibbons, and projectable Dominican Felix Jorge, seeing each make a start over the course of the past two weeks. Gordon had a day off last night, but he played in the other three Elizabethton games I saw (one of which he DH’d in), going 4-for-14 with four singles, no walks, and three strikeouts while converting five plays on defense with no errors.


It’s kind of absurd to think that I’m remotely qualified to answer the question “What sort of player will Nick Gordon become?” based on watching him take 14 rather bland at-bats, field a few balls, and take batting practice twice. It’s one thing to forecast a pitcher’s future based on, say, fourteen batters faced, because with every pitch, you learn about the pitcher’s velocity, movement, mechanics, and control. It’s not so with hitters. When a pitcher throws a 94-mph fastball with life on the inside corner and a batter pops it foul the other way, you’ve learned a lot more about the man throwing the ball than the one hitting it.

If you’re not around scouts a lot, you might think they’re the sort of people who almost instantly form opinions of players. While there certainly are occasions when players quickly leave very strong impressions (positive or negative), scouts are not mystical soothsayers who can see a pitcher merely warm up or a hitter just take some practice swings and immediately come up with a picture of his future. Sometimes, when I’ve discuss a position player with a scout who’s seen him, he’ll simply say “I really haven’t seen him enough to say anything.”

That said, depending on their assignment, pro scouts usually see the teams they cover for either one or two turns of the starting rotation, so often, they’re sending in reports on position players based on samples not dissimilar from mine. There’s certainly the possibility to miss things in such a small viewing sample, but throw in batting and fielding practice and one ought to have a reasonably sound picture of a player’s current skillset.


As it turns out, my viewing sample is fairly representative of Gordon’s season to date from a statistical standpoint–he’s hitting .296/.346/.374 in 26 games. He makes quite a bit of contact (16.5% K), walks only occasionally (6.3% BB) and doesn’t hit for much power (5 XBH, 1 HR). Overall, I’d say his production is quite satisfactory for an 18-year-old shortstop in the Appalachian League. Defensively, his .950 fielding percentage leads the league among regular shortstops, though his 3.96 Range Factor is middle of the pack (the Twins’ pitching staff leading the league in strikeouts is likely part of the reason why on that second metric).

As his current production indicates, Nick Gordon is not without skills. First off, he’s athletic. He’s listed at 6’2″ and 175 pounds and he’s not too far from either dimension, with a lean but somewhat muscular build. He has room to add some more good weight and strength, though obviously he’s not the sort of guy who should be working toward a bulky build. It’s too early for me to pinpoint exactly how good of a defensive shortstop he’ll be, but he’ll clearly hold the position unless something drastically unexpected happens. Further, he should contribute on the bases, though he’s not an out-and-out burner.

Gordon shows good bat speed in both batting practice and games. Probably the most interesting thing I saw him do was this:

Here’s another line drive single:

The ball makes a nice sound off Gordon’s bat when he squares it up. His swing is workable if imperfect, and there’s reason to think he’ll hit for solid averages all the way up the chain. While he hasn’t walked much, he took some solid at-bats and wasn’t rendered helpless by offspeed pitches–he may never be a high-walk player or a real zone-control guy, but he also shouldn’t be an easy out or a flailer.

All that is very good news, of course. Nick Gordon has a broad base of skills. He isn’t bad at anything–his big weakness is power, but he’s got some projection there–and he may end up as an above-average defensive shortstop with a solid bat.

And yet, after three games of viewing Nick Gordon, I find the likelihood of him being the fifth-best player in this or any other draft class to be quite slim.


The Appalachian League is weird. The games are played in mostly rural areas, many of which have old, run-down stadiums. Attendance typically is measured in hundreds, not thousands. The players are usually a mix of lower-round collegians and Latin Americans in either their first or second year of U.S. ball. The quality of play is often very sloppy; even when compared to Low-A ball, there’s a readily obvious difference in the level of pitching and defense. Much of the scouting of the short-season league is done by amateur scouts who, after the draft, grab a couple of pro teams in the summer months, and I’ve had several tell me that the Appy isn’t any higher-quality than mid-major college ball.

The players in the league, of course, generally have little in the way of professional track records. Many were just drafted, after all. Players who have been pro for more than just the summer usually played in either the Dominican Summer League, complex leagues (the Rookie-level AZL and GCL), or are repeating the Appy, and it’s hard to glean a whole lot of meaning from results in those leagues when it comes to identifying the true prospects from a distance. Often, when I’m preparing to see a team for the first time, I have little more to go on than a player’s age and draft/signing pedigree when I’m trying to figure out who to watch closely, or which pitchers to go see.

The flip side of this is that Appy players pretty much start with a blank slate when it comes to my evaluation. I still target specific players (particularly pitchers) as guys I should try to go see, but because the statistics compiled at the level mean so little in the long run, it’s foolish to be thinking “I have to figure out why this pitcher has a strikeout per inning” or “I have to see this guy with a .400 wOBA.” I just show up hoping to see players with legitimate skills. Amidst the sea of the unexciting and the erratic, those with real potential stick out. A position player for the Elizabethton Twins did, in fact, stick out in my viewings, but nobody talked about him on MLB Network on the 2014 Draft’s first (or any) day.


The funny thing about Max Murphy is that he doesn’t look like he should stick out. His body type is probably best described as “unassumingly average.” He’s listed at an entirely believable 5’11” and 195 pounds–not short enough to be short, not thin enough to be thin, not heavy enough to be big, not toned enough to look strong. He looks like a ballplayer, I guess, but an eminently boring and average one.

Murphy does grab some notice when he steps into a batter’s box, but not for any particularly good reason. It’s because his stance is unorthodox, with his hands almost against the letters of his jersey and the best resting almost vertically on his shoulder. With the Appalachian League being full of raw kids, a lot of players have idiosyncratic setups or mechanics, and they rarely (though occasionally) are helpful. I figured he was some sort of sell-out-for-contact type with good hand-eye coordination, and he ripped two singles and drew a walk in his first five plate appearances on July 13th in Danville, which seemed to confirm that.

Then, in his sixth time at the plate, he did this:

I’ve been to Danville’s pitcher-friendly park eight times over the past two years. The only homers I’ve ever seen hit there in games are a sneak job down the right field line by Murphy’s teammate Tyler Kuresa earlier that game, and that blast, which went way up in the trees in left-center.

Murphy, like Gordon, is a 2014 draftee. He was picked 260th overall, with the fifth pick in the ninth round out of Bradley University. He signed quickly and immediately set out to destroy Appy League pitching. After an 0-for-3 in his pro debut, he got hits in eighteen of the next nineteen games, by the end of which he was hitting .403/.494/.791. He’s “slumped” to .359/.480/.590 since, bringing his season line to .373/.475/.691 with eight homers, two triples, seven doubles, nineteen walks, and 31 strikeouts in 32 games. He’s also gone 4-for-4 in steals, gotten hit by pitches six times, and played 26 competent games split across all three outfield positions.

I think it would be an overreach to say that Max Murphy is a better prospect than Nick Gordon. First off, Murphy’s a solid three years older–at 21, he’s supposed to be good compared to other Appalachian League players (though maybe not this much better). He’s supposed to be able to take an 86-mph two-seam meatball from a lefthander and hit it hard (though maybe not that hard). Second, he’s struck out 22.2% of the time and did show some swing-and-miss in my viewings (he did play in all four Elizabethton games I saw), so he’s more likely than Gordon to end up with a real exploitable weakness as he moves up the chain. Third, he’s not a premium athlete–he’s played mostly left field this year. Elizabethton’s primary center fielder is 28th round pick Austin Diemer, so it’s not like a higher-priority player is pushing Murphy to left. He has gotten into five games in the middle pasture and holds his own defensively, but he’s probably not much more than a solid-average left fielder who can spot in center if needed. He’s going to have to hit quite a bit as a right-handed hitter without plus athleticism. I think he might hit enough to be a solid big leaguer, but I wouldn’t put odds on him ending up with the .360+ wOBAs that would vault him into middle-of-the-order, All-Star territory.


Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the gap between Gordon and Murphy probably should’ve been a lot less than nine full rounds of draft spots, enough that I thought I might be missing something. From talking to several talent evaluators and opposing players in the league, though, I’ve found that my judgment isn’t far from the consensus. Virtually everyone I’ve spoken with who has seen Gordon in his Appy League tenure has come away underwhelmed–not “write him off” underwhelmed, but “is this guy really great?” underwhelmed.

What is Gordon going to be great at? He’ll play a solid short, possibly a fair bit above average, but he’s not on the same elite level as the Cleuluis Rondons and Michael De Leons of the world. He’ll make contact, maybe draw 40 walks and hit ten homers a season, but a player has to make a whole lot of contact and play a whole lot of defense to be a real star with 40 walks and ten homers. More likely, he’s in the Erick Aybar/Yunel Escobar mold, which is often good for 3 WAR seasons but rarely good for 5+ WAR ones. He has a high floor for a high school pick because he’s polished and will stick at short, but he may have a lower ceiling than most high teenage picks. Given that the Twins then spent the rest of their first ten picks on pitchers except Murphy (most of them relievers, many of whom I’ve been impressed with in my looks at Elizabethton), that gives them an oddly low-ceiling draft class for a team given the fifth overall pick. Someone in the top ten (the Brady Aiken saga aside) will likely have a worse career than Aybar or Escobar, so if Gordon pans out, things will work out okay, but it still just seems a bit off.

It is important to keep another quirk of the Appalachian League (and other short-season circuits) in mind, though–the draftees who are assigned there sometimes show worse than their pre-draft play as amateurs not because of skill erosion, but because of fatigue. There are plenty of cases of players who get drafted high, struggle in short-season in the summer, and then dominate Low-A out of the gate the next April. It’s more readily obvious with pitchers–you see velocities tend to fall markedly the last couple of weeks in August as their arms tire out after tacking on the seventy-game season to their high school or college campaign–but it happens with hitters, too. Twins fans may remember that Byron Buxton hit .248/.344/.448 between the GCL and Elizabethton when he was drafted, then .341/.431/.559 in the Midwest League the following year. Perhaps this explains the difference between the evaluations of those who saw him before the draft (making him a consensus top-ten pick) and after it. Being the son of a big leaguer, he’s said to have excellent makeup, which also helps. He certainly seemed engaged in drills and gave requisite effort in games, so I don’t have anything negative to say about him on that front; hopefully, he outplays the naysaying projections.

It’s funny how things change so much right after the draft, though. One minute, guys are branded with these draft spots that seem to indicate an order of talent, and the next, they’re mixed in with mostly no-name Dominican and Venezuelans in fifty-year-old parks in rural Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina, and they have to find a way to stand out, regardless of how much talent they’re purported to have. And if there’s anything that’s consistent about the sloppy Appy League and its ilk, it’s that the unexpected is to be expected, and that that nice, neat talent order that the draft provides gets thrown out the window pretty quickly.

We hoped you liked reading Prospect Watch: Nick Gordon and Post-Draft Expectations by Nathaniel Stoltz!

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Nathaniel Stoltz is a prospect writer for FanGraphs. A resident of Bowie, MD and University of Maryland graduate student, he frequently views prospects in the Carolina and South Atlantic Leagues. He can be followed on Twitter at @stoltz_baseball.

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As a guy who just took Gordon 5th in a sim league draft, please allow me to say “Stop it, you’re scaring me.”