Not A Rookie: Alex Gordon
2009 was supposed to be the year that Alex Gordon broke through and became a star. Instead, he went down with a hip injury, missed most of the season, didn't hit well when he did play, and became just another sad bit of flotsam amidst the shipwreck of the Royals season. He enters '10 as a big questionmark. How did this former Grade A prospect get to this point, and can he rebound?
Alex Gordon was an outstanding player at the University of Nebraska, beginning with a sophomore season in '04 that saw him hit .365/.493/.754. His junior season in 2005 was even better: .372/.518/.714, with 23 steals in 26 attempts, excellent plate discipline (63 walks, 38 strikeouts in 253 AB), and good defensive reviews. He was named College Player of the Year by Baseball America, and won the Golden Spikes Award as baseball's top amateur. He drew raves for his makeup and work ethic, and he was also a Royals fan and George Brett devotee, making him a no-brainer pick at second overall in the '05 draft. He signed too late to play professionally that summer, but given his statistical performance and glowing scouting reports, I had no hesitation giving him a Grade A in my 2006 book. I saw him play in person for the Cornhuskers, and he looked like a terrific player to me. I wrote "the exact shape of his success is uncertain, but the reality of that success is assured, or at least as assured as you can be for a guy who hasn't faced pro pitching yet."
The Royals sent Gordon to Double-A Wichita for 2006, leaving him there the entire season. He had a terrific campaign: .325/.427/.588 with 39 doubles, 29 homers, 72 walks, 113 strikeouts, 22 steals in 25 attempts, +33 percent OPS, +73 percent secondary average. He continued to draw raves for his makeup and work ethic, and he showed terrific defense, posting a +13 Total Zone rating. He hit lefties (.921 OPS) and righties (1.038 OPS). He hit at home (.978 OPS) and on the road (1.048 OPS). Basically there were no holes at all in his performance, certainly nothing to make you think he was going to struggle. About the only negative was a strikeout rate that was a little higher than ideal, but it wasn't bad considering his production and the walks that went with it. I gave him a Grade A in the 2007 book and fully expected him to make a strong play for Rookie of the Year.
It didn't turn out that way. Gordon hit .247/.314/.411 in his rookie season, almost getting sent down to Triple-A at one point, but holding his job in the end. He did hit 36 doubles and 15 homers, flashing the power he showed in the minors, but his strike zone judgment was not as good as anticipated, as shown by a 41/137 BB/K ratio. He did perform well defensively according to UZR and other metrics, and his overall WAR of 2.1 showed that he wasn't a bad player overall despite his problems. Living near Kansas City, I got to see him a lot on TV and a few times in person, and he just looked like a guy who was confused at times and would probably have benefitted from Triple-A. I expected him to improve in '08.
Gordon did improve in 2008, hitting .260/.351/.432 with 35 doubles and 16 homers in 134 games, with a sharp increase in his walk rate (11.6% compared to 6.8%), a slight reduction in strikeouts, and a slight boost in isolated power. On the negative side, he missed time with back, leg, and hip flexor injuries, and looked less mobile on defense as a result. His defensive stats confirmed some decline in range, but overall the season (2.4 WAR) represented growth compared to his rookie campaign. I was optimistic that he would break out in 2009.
Instead he broke down. He had more injuries in spring training last year, including knee and hamstring problems, then his hip began hurting again in early April. He tried to play through it, but looked horrible at the plate and on the field, and ended up on the disabled list on April 15th. Surgery was necessary to repair the hip injury. He came back in July but still didn't look right: his timing was off at the plate, his range afield was obviously subnormal, and he appeared to lack confidence. He ended up getting sent back to Omaha to right the ship, but he played well there (.313/.435/.493 in 18 games) and came back to Kansas City in September. He looked much better in the last month of the season, hitting .279/.359/.471 in his last 20 games, obviously much closer to what was expected pre-injury.
Some people are down on Gordon and consider him a failed prospect , but I think that's a mistake. His rookie season wasn't what people hoped for, but he had skipped Triple-A and he wasn't terrible overall. His sophomore season showed improvements. Last year was obviously an injury season; once he was healthy in September he performed closer to expectations. He has spent the off-season rehabbing and getting himself back into proper physical condition, and the hip injury is reportedly no longer an issue at all. He's 26 now, entering his prime seasons.
Although I don't think that Alex is going to be the superstar originally envisioned, I still think he will be a very good player and an above average regular for a long time. Maybe he isn't George Brett, but there's nothing wrong with him becoming Tim Wallach, Ron Cey, or Sal Bando.