Alex Gordon is the most valuable position player in baseball right now. Well, at least according to Fangraphs WAR, which is as good of a starting place for discussion as any. But he's incredibly underrated--perhaps that's because of his game (he derives most of his value from elite defense and is not an overpowering offensive force). Regardless, Gordon is extremely valuable.
By now, Gordon's story has been told many times, with many different perspectives. The cliffnotes is this: top-ranked third baseman prospect, Royals' first round pick (second overall) in the 2005 draft, slightly disappointing first few seasons, apparent bust, best left fielder in baseball. It was a bizarre journey, but Gordon has accumulated more career WAR than anybody in his draft class not named Andrew McCutcheon, Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzke, or Ryan Zimmerman (and, among those, Braun is a known PED user and it is entirely possible that Gordon eventually catches up to Zimmerman).
In 2012, Alex Gordon signed a contract extension with the Royals. A four year deal, it was $37.5 million in guaranteed money from 2012-15 with a player option for an additional $12.5 million in 2016. As player options are never picked up if the player is producing, 2015 is, effectively, the last year of Gordon's contract.
Now, it remains possible that Gordon signs an extension with the Royals but, either way, we should look at how much he's actually worth. So how much is Alex Gordon worth on the free market right now? First, I'll look at Alex Gordon and pretending he's a free agent next year. Then, I'll look at a quartet of comps for Gordon in the past few years, specifically looking at their free agent deal and previous 4-year performance (for a clean comparison to Gordon's outfield era).
Now, this isn't an extended analysis, but merely ballparking what sort of number we would be likely to see if Gordon were on the market right now. The number is large.
2015: Alex Gordon, 31
2011-2014: 22.6 WAR, 122 OPS+, 2 AS appearances, 4 Gold Gloves
I'm projecting a little bit here, using ZiPS rest of season predictions to get the WAR total and assuming he'll get another Gold Glove, a pretty safe bet considering his amazing defense this year. Still, Gordon has been excellent for four years offensively and defensively, and he's been healthy too. He's got a duo of All-Star games and a quartet of Gold Gloves to back up his defensive reputation. He'll be 31 next year and 32 in his real free agent year; while he will see decline, Gordon's skills are varied enough that he should be productive into his 30s.
2013: Michael Bourn, 30
2009-2012: 18.6 WAR, 98 OPS+, 2 AS appearances, 2 Gold Gloves
Contract: Cleveland Indians, 4 years/$48 million
Bourn is a defense-first outfielder who had the good fortune of exhibiting his two best-hitting seasons right before free agency. Even then, he's a solid 9% below league average for his career and 2% below in the years leading up to his signing with Cleveland. Bourn has been reliably healthy, which does count, and he's been a fantastic baserunner for most of his career. In year 2 of his contract, though, Bourn has been injured and has not been very good at defense or baserunning, his main strengths.
2014: Curtis Granderson, 33
2010-2013: 13.9 WAR, 120 OPS+, 2 AS appearances, 1 Silver Slugger
Contract: New York Mets, 4 years/$60 million
Ah, Granderson. After six years with the Detroit Tigers, he was traded to the Yankees in 2010, where he was a centerpiece in their post-World Series team. Granderson has the rare combo of power and speed; his career ISO is .221 and he averages a dozen stolen bases per year alongside excellent baserunning. Granderson would have smashed Steve Balboni's pitiful single-season home run record for the Royals twice, hitting 41 homers in 2011 and 43 in 2012. He was injured in 2013 and did not play much, which likely hurt his earnings.
2011: Jayson Werth, 32
2007-2010: 17.6 WAR, 130 OPS+, 1 AS appearance
Contract: Washington Nationals, 7 years/$126 million
Immediately following Werth's contract, it immediately looked like an albatross, as he hit below league average and was very bad. The past three years have been good, though, with Werth exhibiting his pre-contract nature: great hitter, poor defensive player. Werth has power, takes a walk, and has a very respectable career average.
2011: Carl Crawford, 29
2007-2010: 19.1 WAR, 115 OPS+, 3 AS appearances, 1 Gold Glove, 1 Silver Slugger
Contract: Boston Red Sox, 7 years/$142 million
Remember when Rany argued the Royals should sign Crawford? Aren't you glad they didn't? Crawford was a young free agent at 29 and had a number of skills--average, power, defense--but has mostly been a very big disappointment since then. Crawford, like Bourn, had his best season right before free agency, and rode that to a gigantor contract. Still, he was productive and decorated for years before his contract, and, like I said, was pretty young.
None of these comps are perfect--Werth and Granderson's value comes from offense, Bourn isn't nearly as good a hitter as Gordon, and Crawford was three years older than Gordon will be when he becomes a free agent.
However, there's a decent trend. One, that teams with better-than-average payroll tend to snap up a lot of these types of free agents; in addition to the latter three, large market teams also signed the likes of Shane Victorino, Matt Holliday, and Josh Hamilton.
Two, that Gordon is due for a massive payday. With Bourn at the low end and Crawford at the high end, and considering Gordon's reputation, production, and age, I think it's reasonable somebody pays Gordon between $15-20 million a year for 4+ years. A $100 million contract is more reasonable than not especially considering, by WAR, Gordon has been better than every player I looked at above.
Is he worth that contract? Well, that's a different question, but probably not--especially if it's a long deal into his late 30s. Carlos Beltran, so good for so long, has hit a wall at 37, being injured and ineffective for the Yankees. Gordon doesn't have the luxury of moving to a corner outfield spot as he loses a step, as he's already there, and most likely will not hit well enough to be a full-time 1B or DH five years from now.
It's entirely possible that Gordon gives a hometown discount to his Royals and signs for something like 4 years/$60 million, and it's entirely possible that next year changes everything that I've just written. Even with the hometown discount, though, I don't see a situation in which the Royals get away with not giving him a record contract.
Alex Gordon is a good player. That is a blessing and a curse.