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On Gordon, Zobrist, and the 2016 offseason

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Re-signing Ben Zobrist would be great. But there's Alex Gordon to consider. It may not matter.

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

When the Kansas City Royals pulled the trigger on acquiring infielder/outfielder Ben Zobrist from the Oakland Athletics in exchange for Sean Manaea and Aaron Brooks, I was ecstatic. This happiness was for mutliple reasons--the major one being that I had heavily lobbied for Kansas City to target Zobrist a few weeks earlier. One of the other reasons, though was less obvious. Zobrist is an extremely similar player to Alex Gordon.

Alex Gordon is an amazing baseball player. An example:

Also:

That similarity is a great, great thing.

In fact, that similarity is unbelievably uncanny. Gordon and Zobrist both look relatively similar, though they aren't twins by any stretch. Both sport short, brown hair with full beards and blue eyes. Gordon is listed at 6' 1" and 220 lb.; Zobrist is listed at 6' 3" and 210 lb. Both are right-handed throwers who can bat left-handed, and Zobrist's lefty swing is mechanically similar as well; both hitters stand upright in the box, elbows back:

But the most important similarities are in their style of play. From a big-picture view, Gordon and Zobrist's production since 2011, Gordon's first full season as an outfielder, have been almost identical.

  • Gordon, 2011-present: 25.3 WAR
  • Zobrist, 2011-present: 23.9 WAR

Gordon has been the better player, but not by much. Moving to offense, both of their records are indistinguishable:

  • Gordon, 2011-present: .282/.360/.453
  • Zobrist, 2011-present: .271/359/.437

Gordon has exhibited slightly more power and average, while Zobrist has more walks (and fewer strikeouts). Moving to defense:

  • Gordon, 2011-present: 91 Defensive Runs Saved at one position (LF)
  • Zobrist, 2011-present: 37 Defensive Runs Saved at six positions (LF, CF, RF, 3B, SS, 2B)

Gordon has consistently been the better fielder, but Zobrist makes up for it by his utility and skill at playing the more difficult positions (CF, infield). Defensive positional adjustments in Zobrist's favor is why the overall value as told by WAR is so close despite Gordon's clear lead in raw defensive value.

Earlier in the week, I asked a question to the masses on Twitter:

There were a lot of responses, and you can check them out by clicking on that Tweet. However, the general consensus was in the order of 1) Gordon is ideal, 2) Why not both, and 3) Zobrist. The masses were most worried about Gordon's cost, however, and many were keen on signing Gordon to a 'hometown discount' but not so much otherwise.

The Royals have stated their continued interest in Gordon and will attempt to make a run at him. If they are impressed enough with Zobrist, they could pursue him as an alternative or alongside Gordon. Signing both is also a possibility.

But what are the chances of them signing both? The obvious and quick answer is simple: not that great. The Royals have a limited payroll and a continued commitment to Omar Infante and/or Greg Holland simply prices them out of the market. However, the extension to that answer is this: 2016 is the perfect climate to sign both, or have a legitimate chance at signing either.

The free agent market is, at its heart, an example of supply and demand. The players in the most demand get the most money, and each team has equal negotiating rights for every free agent. But the players in supply can help drive down or raise the prices for the various positions depending on availability and talent. And this upcoming offseason, there is a huge class of top-tier corner outfielders available.

Here is a list of the major corner outfielders, their production since the 2011 season (the past five years of performance), and their 2016 age.

Name WAR/600 PA Triple Slash DRS Age
Jason Heyward 4.6 .263/.340/.423 97 26
Justin Upton 3.6 .272/.352/.474 10 28
Yoenis Cespedes 3.5 .269/.316/.471 13 30
Alex Gordon 5.0 .282/.360/.453 91 32
Ben Zobrist 4.8 .271/359/.437 37 35

This is a crazy, crazy list for a number of reasons. First off, all five are extremely productive. The worst of them, Cespedes, has * only * been worth roughly 3.5 wins per year. But the second reason why this list is odd is because of its youth.

Heyward will be 26 when he signs his first big deal. Twenty-six. It's probably in his interest to only take a five or six year deal so he'll be able to make another splash in free agency as a lower 30s player. Similarly, Upton and Cespedes are also young for free agents.

Youth is definitely valued in free agency. Billy Butler, for instance, signed a three year, $30 million contract as a no-glove hitter who was starting to show signs of decline. He was also just 29. Young players don't often test the free agent waters; Heyward played a full season as a 20-year-old, hence his unusual age as a free agent, but usually players are at least Upton's age. Young production is far more likely to continue than old production, and that means $$$$$$$$$.

But what does this all mean for Kansas City? Normally, a guy like Alex Gordon would be the big catch for the market, but teams are going to bid and bid hard for the Heyward Sweepstakes. Upton, Cespedes, and Gordon will be the secondary catches, and since there are three of them, their collective price will go down. Why get into a bidding war on Upton when Gordon is also available? Smart teams will also pursue Zobrist, who will fill one of these holes as well.

I have no idea how the market will play out. But the market for 2016 is thick at corner outfield. For the Royals, who will lose both their left-fielder and right-fielder to free agency, this can only be good.