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If Alex Gordon returns, it shouldn’t be as the starting left fielder

Gordon might be back. If he is, his role should be different.

Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon (4) is shown at first base after a single in the eighth inning against the Atlanta Braves at SunTrust Park.
Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon (4) is shown at first base after a single in the eighth inning against the Atlanta Braves at SunTrust Park.
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

My first article for Royals Review was about Alex Gordon. It was in 2014, when I double-spaced after periods for some reason, and it was at the height of Gordon being amazing. Per Fangraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement, Gordon was worth 21.4 WAR between 2011 and 2014, making him the 11th most productive position player during that time period. Unfortunately, 2014 would be the last time he eclipsed 3 WAR for the rest of his career.

After two awful seasons in 2016 and 2017 wherein Gordon looked completely washed up, it seemed obvious that Gordon would retire at the end of his free agent contract after the 2019 season. But a mini Gordon renaissance happened, and since the start of 2018 Gordon has been worth 2.8 WAR with almost two months to go this season. As such, that’s put a wrench into the plans. Gordon still could retire, which would not shock anyone, but at recently as May he was leaning towards coming back. It won’t be with another team, as he explicitly stated:

“I don’t want to play anywhere else,” Gordon said. “Yeah, I want to retire as a Royal. I’ve established my family here with my kids. This is home.

Since 2007—Gordon’s rookie year—three players have accumulated 7000 plate appearances with one team. Those players are Joey Votto, Ryan Braun, and Gordon. Going back further, since 1995, the number of players with at least 7000 plate appearances for their original team isn’t much bigger. Derek Jeter. Chipper Jones. Todd Helton. Craig Biggio. Joe Mauer. Yadier Molina. Bernie Williams. The aforementioned Votto, Braun, Gordon. That’s 10 players out of 88.

Ultimately, if Gordon wants to return, he will do so with Kansas City, where he has manned left field for nine seasons.

But ultimately, if Gordon wants to return, it should be as a bench player. His days as the regular left fielder should be over.

For those of you wondering what his role ought to be, that’s pretty simple. Gordon ought to be equally skilled in right field as he is in left, perhaps moreso given his arm. In addition, Gordon was a third baseman in college and played it until 2010 in the majors, and as we’ve seen with Cheslor Cuthbert this year, pretty much any defender can handle first base. Over his career, and especially over the last two seasons, Gordon has been better against righties than lefties. Pull it all together, and it’s easy to come up with playing time for a seasoned bat in a multi-position platoon situation.

Others of you might be thinking, “Gee, isn’t Alex Gordon a Gold Glove defender in left field? Wouldn’t that be limiting his value?” Even a year ago, that would have been true. Gordon’s left field defense in 2018 was worth 15.6 runs over per an average of Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating. In 2019, that same figure is -0.9. All that defensive value has evaporated. The main reason can be succinctly explained by Statcast’s sprint speed numbers: Gordon be slow.

A graph of 2019 Baserunning Sprint Speed, By Position. Alex Gordon is the third-slowest outfielder in baseball.

At 35 years of age, it makes sense that his athleticism is not what it once was. Father time is, indeed, undefeated. But the graph shows visually just how poor Gordon has been. Among qualified runners, Gordon is the third-slowest outfielder in all Major League Baseball. At 1.5 ft/s slower than the average MLB runner, it would take a fly ball hangtime of only 3.7 seconds for Gordon to be an entire Jose Altuve behind a league average runner—and most outfielders are faster than that. Furthermore, that’s assuming a perfect route; being slow not only limits his effective range, but being slow also removes any margin for error in judging where the ball is going in the first place.

However, the other reason, the more important one considering that the Royals are in the midst of a rebuild, is that the Royals already have a sizable glut of outfielders who deserve playing time, some of whom would benefit from being in left field as opposed to center or right.

By my count, No fewer than five players on the roster right now have claim to playing time in the outfield next year already:

  • Bubba Starling
  • Brett Phillips
  • Whit Merrifield
  • Hunter Dozier
  • Jorge Soler

That is, realistically, a full outfield. In this scenario, the starting outfield would consist of Merrifield in left, Starling in center, and Phillips in right, but different combinations are easy considering that the Royals would have three legitimate center field options. Ideally, Soler wouldn’t see the field much, but every American League DH sees the field sometimes, and with the versatility of Starling, Phillips, and Merrifield it would be easy.

This isn’t even taking into account that four more minor league players are waiting in the wings:

  • Jorge Bonifacio
  • Elier Hernandez
  • Nick Heath
  • Khalil Lee

Bonifacio and Hernandez are blatantly unexciting, but Bonifacio just turned 26 this season and Hernandez, somehow, doesn’t turn 25 until November. Still, it might be worth seeing what they have to give. More exciting are Lee, who will likely start 2020 in Triple-A, and Heath, who is particularly interesting. We might even see Heath this September when rosters expand. The 25-year-old lefty has 55 stolen bases this season. Fifty-five. In less than 100 games played. He also plays a mean center field and has held his own offensively throughout the minors.

Is there a scenario in which the outfield needs Alex Gordon? Not really. If the Royals trade Merrifield, shift Soler to full-time DH, kick Bonifacio off the 40-man roster, release Hernandez, decide that Dozier is better as a first baseman, and witness significant injuries to two or more of Starling, Phillips, Heath and Lee, then sure, Gordon would have a spot. However, you could say a similar thing about every team in baseball: “Yeah, we can fit this guy in, if the team purposefully nukes their positional depth and the rest all get injured at the same time.”

Even if the Royals trade Merrifield—an event that seems unlikely, but let’s go with it for a second—Kansas City will have six outfielders to think about: Dozier, Starling, Phillips, Soler, Heath, Lee. And that’s not even taking into account the Royals acquiring a Chris Owings-esque utility guy or a Brian Goodwin-esque flier.

Alex Gordon is a Kansas City legend. If he wants to come back and play for a terrible Royals team again, and as long as he’s playing reasonably good baseball, he deserves to be able to make that call. But things have changed. Gordon’s role with the team should, too.