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What should the Royals do if Alex Gordon is still terrible this year?

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When is it time to move on?

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Kansas City Royals Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

He circled the bases, one finger raised triumphantly as the fans cascaded applause onto him. Alex Gordon’s home run to tie Game 1 of the 2015 World Series is one of the most iconic moments in franchise history, etched in the memory of every Royals fan. Not only did it come from a homegrown player, drafted and developed by the franchise, it came from a Midwestern kid, born and raised in nearby Nebraska, whose family loved the Royals so much they named one of their sons after George Brett.

Since Alex Gordon helped lead the Royals to a championship in 2015, however, the great moments for him have been few and far between, at least with the bat. Gordon has hit just .214/.302/.346 in the two seasons since. Only two regular players in baseball have been worth less offensively over that time, according to Fangraphs.

Here’s a list of the worst outfielders since 1969 in their age 32 and 33 seasons combined (minimum 1000 plate appearances.

Worst age-32/33 seasons by an outfielder, since 1969

Players Age 32-33 OPS OPS before age 32 OPS after age 33 PA after age 33
Players Age 32-33 OPS OPS before age 32 OPS after age 33 PA after age 33
Willie Wilson .636 .723 .662 1360
Alex Gordon .649 .783 ? ?
Juan Pierre .657 .720 .664 769
Dan Gladden .677 .719 .699 845
Jeffrey Leonard .677 .746 .660 525
Vada Pinson .684 .801 .646 1273
Marquis Grissom .687 .737 .746 2210
Dale Murphy .701 .862 .704 1340
Tommy Harper .711 .722 .675 495
Gary Matthews, Jr. .712 .755 .668 425

It’s a bit of an arbitrary endpoint, but you can see that aside from Marquis Grissom, everyone else on this list hit a wall they couldn’t really recover from. A player who didn’t make this list because he didn’t have the minimum number of plate appearances, but who is perhaps the best comp is Vernon Wells. Like Gordon, Wells was a terrific player in his prime - an All-Star with good pop and great defense. Wells was an All-Star in his age-31 season - hit .273/.331/.515 with 31 home runs for the Blue Jays. But then he just forgot how to hit, batting .226/.267/.387 in 1,249 plate appearances over the rest of his career.

So far in spring training, Alex Gordon has struggled mightily. Of course, these are fake games, and fake game stats should be taken with a grain of salt. And he’s had less than 50 at-bats - about two week’s worth of playing time in the regular season. But it certainly isn’t good that he’s hitting .087 in Arizona. And it is perhaps just a tiny data point in a much larger portrait of player that has hit as poorly as anyone in baseball the last two years.

So what will the Royals do if Alex continues to struggle? Well, for starters, he is not going to the minor leagues. An 11-year Major League veteran, Gordon can no longer be optioned. The Royals can designate him for assignment, and after he clears waivers (no one would claim him with $44 million owed to him on his contract), the Royals can assign him to Omaha, but he has the right to refuse assignment. If he does that, the Royals either have to put him back on the active roster, or release him, but are still under the obligation to pay the remainder of his deal.

Would the Royals let him go with that much money owed? They have shown a proclivity to cut their losses on unproductive players in recent years. They released Omar Infante with nearly $15 million left on his deal. They released Chris Young with over $4 million owed on his deal. Last year, they paid the San Diego $8 million to take Travis Wood off their hands.

Of course, Alex Gordon is owed more than all three of those players were combined. And we’re not talking about some free agent mistake, we’re talking about a player drafted and developed by the Royals, who has been a part of this organization for over a decade, who hit perhaps the biggest post-season home run in franchise history, a future Royals Hall of Famer. Heck, we’re talking about the guy that wrote the foreword to Dayton Moore’s book. This isn’t a player the Royals will just discard cavalierly.

Alex Gordon’s performance in 2016 and 2017 cost them dearly. The team was on the brink of contention, and having one of the worst offensive performers in the lineup every day (actually, two) almost certainly cost them a few wins for a team that had little margin for error. The Royals may eschew “tanking” in favor of “competing” this year, but they seem very unlikely to seriously contend. So even if Alex Gordon continues to struggle, it’s not like he’s costing them a shot at the pennant.

Of course, that’s not a reason to keep him. But there isn’t a pressing reason to dump him until a better alternative exists. And currently, there isn’t one. Jon Jay and Jorge Soler already have starting spots. Jorge Bonifacio is suspended for 80 games. Paulo Orlando and Billy Burns are not really starting material and have little upside at their age. Minor league free agent Michael Saunders has been just as awful as Gordon over the last year and a half. Bubba Starling has been unimpressive and will likely miss the start of the season.

For now, the Royals will likely stick with Alex Gordon. His defense is still exemplary - he won a Gold Glove last year - so he is still providing some value. If there is an opportunity for them to acquire a young corner outfielder, or perhaps when Bonifacio returns to action, or maybe when Adalberto Mondesí comes up and Whit Merrifield moves to the outfield, then perhaps Gordon will take a seat on the bench. But there likely won’t be enough outfield depth to force him off the roster, not this year.

There seem to be few answers as to why Alex Gordon has suddenly become a replacement-level player. It could just be Father Time catching up to him, despite his maniac workouts and strict diet. As Albert Pujols said recently, “the game will let you know when it’s time to retire.” Alex Gordon may not be at that point yet, but every whiff brings him a step closer to forcing the hand of the club he has made so many memories with.

Poll

Will the Royals release Alex Gordon?

This poll is closed

  • 11%
    Yes, at some point this year
    (175 votes)
  • 16%
    Yes, after this year
    (258 votes)
  • 19%
    Yes, at some point next year
    (299 votes)
  • 53%
    No, they won’t release him before his contract is up
    (830 votes)
1562 votes total Vote Now