(The Royals open their season in less than 72 hours, and I’ve got contracts to review, spring training decisions to cover, last year’s report card to finish, and who knows what else. I’ll do my best to get through them all, but I may not be as thorough as usual. Which is probably a good thing.)
Lee Judge, who when he isn’t making fun of sabermetrics actually does a good job of covering the Royals from an inside perspective, had a story about Alex Gordon last week. Gordon had taken a bite of a cupcake.
This was apparently big news within the Royals’ clubhouse. Gordon does not eat cupcakes. He does not eat pizza. He presumably does not eat anything that might be construed as the slightest bit unhealthy.
It’s a silly anecdote, a throw-away one-liner about what happens inside the clubhouse. But when I read that anecdote, the first thing that crossed my mind was, “Damn, the Royals have to get him signed.”
They did. And suddenly, this doesn’t look like the spring training from hell anymore.
Dayton Moore can keep screwing up the little things as long as he keeps getting the big things right. Yes, I’m annoyed that Johnny Giavotella is in Omaha while Chris Getz and Yuniesky Betancourt platoon at second base. But if, two weeks ago, you had told me that Giavotella would get optioned, but that Gordon would sign a long-term deal before Opening Day, I would have taken that deal in a heartbeat.
Baseball fans outside of Kansas City may not appreciate just how fantastic Gordon was in 2011. He was, in many ways, the quintessential five-tool player, finally showing off the breadth of talents that were on full display in Wichita in 2006. He hit for average (.303) and hit for power (72 extra-base hits, 23 homers) and stole bases (17 for 25) and played defense (a Gold Glove in left field, although Brett Gardner would have been a much better selection) and showed off a cannon arm (a major-league leading, and Royals franchise record, 20 baserunner kills.)
He did important things that don’t fall under the rubric of the Five Tools. He showed patience at the plate, leading the team with 67 walks. He grounded into only 9 double plays all year. According to Baseball-Reference.com, he was worth 5.9 Wins Above Replacement last year. While Gordon got a couple of MVP votes – he finished 21st overall on the ballot – he was actually one of the ten best players in the American League last year.
He probably won’t be that good again this year, and may not be that good again in any year. He doesn’t have to be. Even a regressed Alex Gordon is an above-average left fielder, and even if he regresses Gordon will likely be worth the money he’ll earn.
While I was hoping that the Royals would have been able to get a club option in the deal – or at least avoid a player option – I also expected the dollars to be more. Gordon’s contract replaces his $4.775 million deal for 2012 with a $6 million salary, then $9 million next year, $10 million in 2014, and $12.5 million in 2015. Gordon holds a player option for 2016 at $12.5 million.
(It’s worth noting that a team’s ability to get club options in a long-term deal is directly correlated with how far the player is from free agency. Salvador Perez, six years away from free agency, gave the Royals three option years. Alcides Escobar, four years away, gave them two option years. Last year, Billy Butler (three years away) gave them one option year. Neither Gordon nor Zack Greinke (two years away) gave them any.)
The player option is all downside; if Gordon is as good as we think he is, it won’t be exercised, but if last year proves to be a massive fluke, then the Royals will be saddled with a $12.5 million commitment. But look at it this way: while Gordon got an out clause for the final year, he also signed a 5-year, $50 million contract. For the same number of years, that’s less money than the Royals signed Gil Meche or Mike Sweeney for.
Of course, since Gordon was already signed for 2012, essentially this comes down to a $45.225 million guarantee for the next four years, with an out clause. That makes the deal look a little better for Gordon. But it’s still a good deal for the Royals even if Gordon falls back to earth a little. If he doesn’t, it’s a great one.
The only thing about Gordon’s 2011 that looks a little fishy is his batting average; it’s difficult to hit .300 and strike out 139 times without massive power. Gordon’s batting average on balls in play was .358. While hitters have a lot more control over that stat than pitchers, .358 is on the edge of sustainability. It’s more likely that he was a little lucky last season, and even with his new swing he’s more of a .330 BABIP guy. That would drop his batting average to around .280 or so.
If Gordon hits .280, but with the same amount of power, plate discipline, speed and defense he showed last year, he’s a hell of a player. He’s 28 years old now; he’ll be 32 the year of his player option. Contrary to popular perception, he is not entering his prime – most players peak at age 27, and we likely just saw Gordon’s peak season, when he was 27. But I think it’s likely he’ll perform at a level close to his peak for at least the next 3-4 years.
Gordon fits the profile of a player who is likely to age gracefully almost to a tee. He is a tremendous athlete, and he has both power and speed – players with both skills age better than both plodding sluggers and punch-and-judy speedsters. He takes such phenomenal care of himself that it’s a minor story when he takes a bit from a cupcake.
The one thing in Gordon’s profile that works against him staying productive into his mid-30s is his injury history. But he’s more durable than you’d think from looking at his stat line – he played 18 games in the minors in 2009 and 75 games in 2010. Counting his minor league time, his games played the last five years goes 151, 134, 67, 149, 151. He’s only been on the DL three times in his career, and two of those were fairly minor: a quad strain in 2008 cost him three weeks, and a fractured thumb from an awkward slide into second base in spring training in 2010 cost him the first two weeks of the season.
The only serious injury Gordon has suffered was the torn labrum in his hip he suffered early in 2009, which cost him three months. He recovered from surgery on schedule, and has had no sequelae since. He’s not Cal Ripken, but he’s not exactly Chris Snelling.
I could see Alex Gordon resembling another ex-Royal, in the sense of never having a season quite like last year’s, but still having a long and productive career into his mid-to-late 30s. In 2000, his last season with the Royals, Johnny Damon hit .327/.382/.495, led the league with 46 bases, and was worth 6.6 bWAR. (He was worth 20 runs with his legs alone – at the plate, Gordon had the better season.)
He would never again have a season that good again. But over the next 11 years, Damon was worth an average of 3.2 bWAR a year, and was worth 2.8 bWAR as recently as last year, when he was 37. Damon is amazingly durable – he’s one of the few players in history to have played in 140+ games 16 years in a row. But the two players have similar profiles in terms of how likely they are to age gracefully. Damon’s game was more speed and batting average based, which if anything made him more prone to ups and downs offensively. When Damon hit .327 he was a stud; when he hit .256 the following year in Oakland, he was a cipher with the bat. If Gordon hits .245, in today’s depressed offensive environment, he should still hit with enough power to provide some value.
Whether Gordon is still a valuable player when he’s 36 is sort of irrelevant, because the Royals are only on the hook through his age-32 season. Compare Gordon to Joey Votto and it becomes even more clear how good this deal is. Both players are 28 years old (Votto is five months older than Gordon.) Both signed contracts two years away from free agency. Yet Gordon will make almost exactly half annually what Votto makes with his new deal, and the Royals are committed to Gordon for five years, compared to TWELVE years for Votto. The Royals are out from Gordon’s contract after his age-32 season; the Reds are on the hook for Votto until after his 40th birthday.
Sure, Votto is a better player than Gordon, but THAT much better? Gordon was worth 5.9 bWAR last year; Votto was worth 6.5 bWAR, but in the National League. Of course he has the vastly better track record, and he’s the safer bet going forward, etc, etc. But the Reds made a financial commitment to Votto that is FIVE TIMES what the Royals made to Gordon.
Six weeks ago, there was only one skill we could state, with a fair degree of certainty, that Dayton Moore’s front office possessed: they knew how to identify and develop talent. But with three players signed during spring training to contracts that buy out two years of free agency – I still have to get around to discussing Escobar’s deal – I think we can add a second skill to Moore’s ledger: he has the ability to get those players to commit to the organization long-term.
Yes, there are plenty of things Moore does which drive me nuts, and I’m sure he will continue to drive me nuts at times in the future. But really, if you’re the General Manager for a small-market team, and you could only do two things really well, aren’t these exactly the two things you’d ask for? Acquire amateur talent – when it’s still in your price range – and then sign that talent to contracts which make them fit into your payroll for as long as possible?
It might seem like a no-brainer for the Royals to offer these long-term deals. It might even seem like a no-brainer for Salvador Perez and Escobar and Gordon to sign those deals. But getting a player to commit to your organization isn’t simply a matter of dollars. It’s a matter of building a culture in the clubhouse that makes those players want to stick around. It’s a matter of developing a level of trust with your players, that they trust your ability to build a winning team around them, and that they trust your integrity enough to accept security in exchange for the chance to make more money elsewhere.
In the case of Perez and Escobar, you could argue that with free agency being so far away, and with neither player having earned enough money to be secure on their own, that they would have signed those deals no matter who their GM was. But Gordon was two years away from free agency, and counting the money he was due to earn this year, had earned about $12 million since he was drafted. If he didn’t trust Dayton Moore, he wouldn’t have signed. That he did sign says a lot about how the players feel about their front office.
Unlike the other team at the Truman Sports Complex, the Royals have kept virtually every player they’ve wanted to keep since Moore was hired. The one exception to that would be Zack Greinke, who nonetheless signed the same kind of deal Gordon did – a four-year contract when he was two years away from free agency. (The terms were virtually identical – Greinke got $38 million for four years, Gordon gets $37.5 million plus his option. Greinke’s deal was slightly more back-loaded, earning him $13.5 million each of the last two years.)
Greinke ultimately demanded an out, because he lost the trust in Moore’s ability to build a contender in Kansas City by the time his contract is up. But I don’t sense that Greinke lost trust in Moore as a person, and if he makes it to free agency next winter, I honestly think he would consider returning to Kansas City if the offer was there. Besides, the Royals got a good return in the trade. Greinke’s departure from the Royals would have occurred after the 2010 season even if he hadn’t signed a long-term deal, but instead of getting two draft picks as compensation, they got their starting shortstop (who himself is now signed through 2017), their starting centerfielder, a lottery ticket reliever, and one of their best pitching prospects.
Aside from Greinke, the Royals have kept everyone they’ve wanted to. You could argue that they shouldn’t have kept the players they wanted to keep (e.g. Bruce Chen), but it’s an impressive trait, given the Royals’ limited financial resources, that they’ve managed to convince every key player they’ve had in the last five years (Gordon, Butler, Soria, Greinke) to commit to the team past the point of free agency.
Signing Gordon has a few other benefits. First, it keeps the lineup from becoming precariously right-handed over the next few years. With Gordon, Eric Hosmer, and Mike Moustakas, barring injury the Royals can depend on having at least three left-handed hitters in their lineup most nights. (They may have five in the lineup on Opening Day, with Chris Getz and Brayan Pena, but Perez will be back soon enough, and if Getz doesn’t lose his job to Giavotella, he’ll lose it to Christian Colon, both of whom bat right-handed.)
As I’ve pointed out before, the Royals’ top hitting prospects almost exclusively bat right-handed. There are 15 hitters in Baseball America’s list of the Royals’ Top 30 Prospects, and twelve of them are right-handed. Clint Robinson (#21) and David Lough (#30) are left-handed, and Daniel Mateo (#28) is a switch-hitter. It’s hard to envision any prospect currently in the system who doesn’t bat right-handed becoming an everyday player for the Royals.
You can survive with three left-handed bats in your lineup. Losing Gordon and replacing him with a right-handed hitter would have crossed the tipping point, I think, where every team brings in their version of Louis Coleman in the late innings to rip through four or five right-handed bats in a row. Now, the Royals don’t have to worry about that possibility for the next four years, by which time they’ll hopefully have scrounged up a left-handed bat or two.
The other benefit to signing Gordon is that he was really the only key player on the roster who was eligible for free agency between now and the end of the 2014 season. Now, the Royals are well-positioned to lose a minimal amount of talent to free agency over the next five years, which means their window to contend should be over multiple seasons. These are the only players on the 40-man roster that have the right to leave as free agents at the end of each season:
2012: Yuniesky Betancourt, Jonathan Broxton, Humberto Quintero, Jonathan Sanchez
2013: Bruce Chen, Jeff Francoeur, Brayan Pena
2014: Chris Getz, Luke Hochevar, Mitch Maier, Jose Mijares, Felipe Paulino, Joakim Soria
In 2014, the only players currently on the roster that might have left would be a pair of backup catchers, a utility infielder, two starting pitchers of questionable worth, and an everyday right fielder – the one position where the Royals have an elite prospect likely to be ready in the next two years.
Before the 2015 season, the Royals might lose Hochevar and Paulino, but 1) they might not be worth keeping at that point anyway, and 2) if they are worth keeping, the Royals have three years to work out an extension.
After the 2015 season, both Gordon and Butler may be free agents, which would hurt. But that’s four years away. The Royals have four full years to build on their current roster before they lose a single one of their core players.
And finally, having signed Perez, Escobar, and Gordon in quick succession, the Royals have now increased the odds that they might get a long-term deal done with Hosmer. Now, “increased” is a relative term. I think the odds are still very slim – but six weeks ago I would have said they were non-existent.
Votto’s contract signals the new world we’re living in, where TV contracts are going through the roof and there’s more money for everyone – but where there’s potentially an even bigger financial gap between the haves and the have-nots. In such a world, if the Royals want to get a deal done with Hosmer, they need to do it now. Not next year: now.
If Hosmer is going to sign a deal, it’s going to be a straight contract, no option years – Scott Boras doesn’t operate like that. Does 8 years, $80 million sound reasonable? Hosmer’s going to make about $1 million over the next two years combined, so that’s basically a 6-year, $79 million deal once Hosmer reaches arbitration. That might sound ridiculous, but if Hosmer is as good as everyone thinks he is, he’ll challenge for $10 million his first year of arbitration, and could easily be at $15 million by 2016. If Hosmer goes year-to-year, he could easily make $50-60 million in his four arbitration years, and then another $50-60 million in his first two free agent years alone.
But $80 million guaranteed today might appeal to him more than the non-guaranteed opportunity to make $100-120 million over the same time frame. At the same time, 8 years/$80 million ought to fit – it’s a tight squeeze, but it will fit – into the Royals’ payroll structure.
Getting Gordon signed, on top of the contracts to Perez and Escobar, was a coup for Dayton Moore. But if those contracts lead to the biggest, boldest signing of them all, well, that would be a true revolution.