Alex Gordon returns to Royals on crucially needed team-friendly deal
Two months after declining his $14 million player option for next season, Alex Gordon has returned to the Royals via a four-year deal reportedly worth $72 million, or an average of $18 million per season; the contract also includes a mutual option for 2020. That total value is both the largest in team history and significantly less than Gordon was expected to land via free agency this winter. In other words: Gordon—a Lincoln, Neb., native and life-long Royals fan who has been with the organization since it made him the No. 2 pick of the '05 draft—gave Kansas City a hometown discount.
Most estimates of Gordon’s market value this off-season had him approaching a nine-figure deal. In a recent MLB Now appearance, I speculated that he’d fall in the $90 million to $100 million range, and in early November, MLB Trade Rumors' Tim Dierkes predicted Gordon would sign for $105 million over five years. Our "What’s He Really Worth?" formula, meanwhile, believes Gordon will be worth $107.4 million over the next four years alone. If so, the Royals will be getting a substantial bargain.
That $107.4 million calculation begins with the projection of a 2016 season worth 4.4 Wins Above Replacement (baseball-reference.com version) for Gordon. While he was worth just 2.8 bWAR in helping Kansas City to the world championship last year, he averaged 6.1 bWAR per season in the four years prior to that. What's more, he missed 48 games in '15 with a groin strain; pro-rating Gordon’s production over those missing games brings him up to 4.1 bWAR for the year. You can’t assume health—particularly not for a player who will turn 32 next month—but that 4.4 bWAR projection is very attainable for a player with Gordon’s track record and skill set.
Another way to look at Gordon’s new contract is to calculate the level of play required for him to earn the money the Royals just gave him. I think this does an even better job of illustrating what a team-friendly contract this is for Kansas City. Here are those numbers, with the value of a marginal win (one win above replacement, or one point of WAR) based on actual 2015 contracts as calculated by ESPN’s Dan Szymborski and increased by 5.4% per season to reflect the typical inflation in baseball’s market and with Gordon’s expected decline simulated by a decrease of 0.5 bWAR per season:
According to those numbers, Gordon could be worth just 3.2 bWAR in the coming season—a mere 0.4 bWAR more than he was worth in only 104 games in 2015—and decline from there, and he would still be worth $72 million over the next four seasons. That is a team-friendly contract.
It’s also a crucial contract for the Royals, whose current roster is a ticking time bomb set to explode after the 2017 season. That’s when no fewer than 12 of their players—all but one of whom played in the World Series—are due to hit free agency. That group includes everyday regulars Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer, Kendrys Morales and Mike Moustakas; backup outfielder Jarrod Dyson; starting pitchers Edinson Volquez and Jason Vargas (the only one who didn't partake in the Fall Classic); and relievers Wade Davis, Danny Duffy, Luke Hochevar and Kris Medlen. Given their financial limitations, there is little chance of the Royals keeping this team together beyond that year, which makes it all the more important that they keep it together through '17. Re-signing Gordon, Kansas City's leader in bWAR in every season from 2012 to '14, was the biggest challenge facing general manager Dayton Moore in the wake of the team’s championship. Whether it's due to Gordon’s generosity, a surprisingly weak market for his services or Moore's own wheeling and dealing, he got it done.
That doesn’t mean that the Royals are necessarily set for 2016, however. Bringing Gordon back is huge, and they replaced departed free-agent setup man Ryan Madson by reuniting with former closer Joakim Soria on a three-year, $25 million deal, getting three years younger in the process. But Kansas City lost deadline additions Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto to free agency, and regular 2015 rightfielder Alex Rios is also a free agent. A platoon of Dyson (a lefty) and Paulo Orlando (a righty)—slick fielders who have combined to hit .266/.325/.372 against opposite-handed pitchers in their major league careers—should be an upgrade over Rios (.255/.287/.353 with inferior defense in 2015), but the Royals could still use a replacement for Zobrist at second base and an extra starting pitcher.
In the former case, the team still owes Omar Infante $17.75 million for the next two years. It also has postseason hero and former prospect Christian Colon heading into his age-27 season as a potential replacement should the 34-year-old Infante not bounce back from a season in which he was dead last in the majors in OPS+ (a dreadful 49) among hitters with 400 or more plate appearances. There’s some hope for a rebound from Infante; he had surgery in November to remove bone chips from his elbow, an injury that supposedly contributed to his poor performance in each of the last two seasons. Still, Howie Kendrick is available as a free agent and would seem to be an easy upgrade if the lack of interest in his services to this point has convinced him to lower his price.
More crucial, however, is the need for an extra starter. With the Royals preferring to keep Duffy in the bullpen in 2016, their Opening Day rotation currently projects as Volquez, Yordano Ventura, Medlen, Chris Young and either rookie Miguel Almonte or a non-roster invitee such as Dillon Gee. That’s extremely problematic: Two-time Tommy John recipient Medlen has thrown all of 64 1/3 major league innings (postseason included) since the 2013 season, Young hasn’t surpassed 165 innings in a season since '07, and Ventura, for all of his talent, was briefly sent down to Triple A in July due to his erratic performances.
Wei-Yin Chen is easily the best starting pitcher remaining on the market and could be looking for a contract comparable to the five-year, $80 million deal Mike Leake received from the Cardinals, but Kansas City isn't likely to break the franchise record it just set to sign Gordon. If the requirement is simply “better than Dillon Gee” however, there are other, more affordable fish in the sea, and many of them, such as Yovani Gallardo, would benefit from pitching in the Royals' pitcher-friendly ballpark in front of a stellar defense—one that will once again includes Gordon.