When the Royals were still really bad, they had a heralded third base prospect who did not live up to the hype. To that young man's surprise, he was moved to left field in the middle of a season. Now he's Alex Gordon, with a collection of Gold Gloves and universal admiration from all over baseball.
This week, Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star pulled back the curtain on Gordon's two-month experience with free agency. If you have not read the piece, please do. It is revealing and intimate in a way that is not typical of baseball transaction reporting. Mellinger injected a ton of humanity into a process we usually only see the numerical end results of: four years, $72 million.
In researching a completely different article altogether, I found a similarly revealing story about Gordon. This one was from the Omaha World-Herald, looking back on the time Gordon was not only demoted to Triple-A, but was blindsided with the news that he would be switching positions when he got there. It is sometimes hard to remember that time, when Gordon went from being near the top of an all-time great draft class to best minor leaguer to Royals future third baseman to total disappointment. Just before his demotion, the Royals announced they were benching Gordon. Former Royals Review editor Will McDonald was outraged:
This is a gigantic mistake. I'm starting to wonder what the point of getting excited about the prospects in the minors is. One, this leadership group has shown no ability to develop advanced players at the AAA/MLB level. None. Guys simply rot and regress. Two, even if a few sneak through the cracks of incompetence, they're still going to be surrounded by garbage.
The announcement about the demotion came the next day. Aside from Dayton Moore, whose decision it was to move the former top draft pick he inherited to a completely different position, nobody could have imagined what Gordon would mean to Royals fans by the spring of 2016.
Admittedly, I did not. In 2010, I worked in on-field promotions for the Omaha Royals. One game, my boss and I had to sit out in the unused outfield bleachers for half an inning to get ready for a promotion, and Gordon flagged down a fly ball in left-center, right in front of us. I remember saying something about how crazy it was to try such a big change, and it was hard to imagine this experiment going anywhere.
After 67 games in Omaha, mostly in left field but also a handful in right, Gordon rejoined the big club. It didn't go well at first. Bruce Chen said plainly in that World-Herald story that he did not approve of having a reclamation project behind him:
"When you're a pitcher, you don't want to get a project in the big leagues. ... I don't want him to play the outfield and misplay a couple balls and cost us the game. They're my runs. That's in your head. You're like, that's not really gonna work."
Luckily for Chen, Alex Gordon had the determination to not only become a capable left-fielder, but to excel at it. He took to "power shagging" before games, using batting practice as an opportunity to practice how he would pursue hit balls in a game. As explained by Royals writer Dick Kaegel:
He charges after batting practice hits as he would in a game. Pitchers shagging in the outfield clear the area.
"They stand over in right or center or stand by the fence and leave me alone," Gordon said. "They try to stay clear so we don't have any collisions." The ritual has done wonders for Gordon.
"It makes me feel a lot more comfortable on game hits, knowing that I took all those batting practice hits like games, so it just comes naturally, or at least I hope it does," he said. "That's kind of the whole plan -- practice makes perfect and that's what I try to do."
What if the move in 2010 had been a regular demotion, and not a position change as well? What would have happened to Mike Moustakas? Might he or Alex been traded? How would Alex Gordon at third base have changed, for instance, the winter 2010 trade which sent Zack Greinke to Milwaukee and netted the Royals such an important haul? Without the chain reaction that set up - Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar are anchors of the team, and Jake Odorizzi helped net James Shields, who helped push the team into its first postseason after the drought - would Gordon be any part of this team? And would this team be getting ready to raise a World Series flag?
Thankfully, we will never have to know. Alex Gordon is one of the best left-fielders in the game, and it may have been a demotion to the minor leagues that made him who he is today.