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February 17, 2011

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

A Dee Gordon PSA

by Jason Parks

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Hello, my name is Jason Parks, and I want to talk to you about Dodgers prospect Dee Gordon. Have you, or anyone you know been affected by the prospect love showered on Dee Gordon? If so, you aren’t alone.

Dee Gordon fans started making noise in 2008, after he made an impressive debut in the Pioneer League. The majority of prospect prognosticators were on board by 2009, and by the start of the 2010 season, the Dee Gordon situation had reached a ferocious intensity; respected prospect guru Kevin Goldstein suggested before the 2010 season that “Gordon's tools are the best in the [Dodgers] system by a mile, and among the best in the game, with one scout calling him, ‘A Jimmy Rollins starter kit’." ESPN’s Keith Law jumped into the Gordon argument as well, ranking him as the 39th-best prospect in baseball, with two talent evaluators suggesting to him (independently) that Gordon is Jimmy Rollins with less power.

So, it was a high-praise shower indeed. Then, after feeling the full torrent of prospect love that offseason, Gordon made the jump to Double-A, and ardor for him cooled a bit, but the movement is still very much alive. As someone with friends who have fallen victim to the Jimmy Rollins dream, I just want to make this prospect public service announcement to make the case that Gordon’s lofty projection is more fantastical than real-world future.

Let’s start this off with a little honesty before we delve deeper into the scouting. When I first saw Dee Gordon, I was impressed: I was standing by the fence on the first base side of the field, watching this athletic shortstop with range that made the left side of the infield appear smaller. His actions at the position were a little clumsy, and he made a few routine plays look much harder than necessary, but his arm was strong and his body looked projectable, so my prospect pulse was starting to race.

For whatever reason, I just assumed he was a recent Latin American signee, getting his feet wet on the backfields. At this point, I was still unaware of who the player in question was; after all, I was watching a low minors complex game, and the players are often without identification on their jerseys. I finally walked over to the Dodgers coaching staff and asked who the fast-twitch athlete playing shortstop was. I was told Dee Gordon.

Now, it's not that I was unaware of Dee Gordon in general. Rather, I had never seen him play in person, and even though I knew he was a toolsy infielder in the Dodgers system, at the time, I never thought I was watching a 22-year-old. My prospect pulse returned to its normal state of being slightly to moderately manic.

Dee Gordon is a legit prospect in the sense that he has some major league-quality tools, and one can envision those tools refining and becoming weapons at the highest level. His speed is unquestioned, with a fast first step out of the box and 80-grade times down the line. On the bases, he is able to turn that speed into a weapon, stealing bases at a high clip and turning singles into doubles and doubles into triples.

On defense, Gordon has all the athleticism and coordination necessary to play above-average defense, with excellent first-step quickness, giving him well above-average range. His arm strength is above-average, but his throwing mechanics aren’t always the cleanest, affecting his accuracy and bringing his overall grade down a bit.

At the plate, Gordon gets into the hitting zone quickly, with a fast trigger and a clean, compact stroke. Thanks to his speed and contact ability, Gordon has been able to hit for average, and his approach keeps him in favorable hitting situations. After talking to scouts, it was pointed out that Gordon could become a dominant base-stealer at the major-league level if he could improve his strength in order to hit (reach base) against more advanced pitching.

Here’s the reason for the Prospect Public Service Announcement: After looking at the scouting reports, and looking over my own notes, and talking to scouts who have seen Gordon, and talking to friends who love Gordon, and flipping a few coins, and consulting a Magic 8 ball, I decided that I needed to warn others about the dangers of falling in love with this type of prospect. I just don’t want to see you hurt.

Here are a few questions that we must ask and answer if we have any hope of moving forward from Dee Gordon:

Q: Will Dee Gordon become an above-average shortstop at the major-league level?

A: Not likely. Despite having range and a strong arm, Gordon’s glove is more underdeveloped than you want to see from a soon-to-be 23-year-old, and it's hard to project him as a plus defender. Sure, with a few more years of repetition, Gordon’s glove will no doubt improve, but I don’t see the glove becoming above average, and when scouts start to mention that moving to center field might be a beneficial move, it reinforces the doubts about his ability to refine enough to play above-average defense at short. Call the chatter about a position switch mere speculation (which it is), but it is out there. You don’t hear people discussing Adeiny Hechavarria or Jose Iglesias moving to center, so it makes you question Gordon’s defensive projection more than you normally would.

Q: Will Dee Gordon be an above-average hitter at the major-league level?

A: No. Gordon has a good hit tool, but the strength isn’t there, and it’s hard to see where it will come from. Without adding strength, pitchers will feel more comfortable attacking Gordon over the plate, daring him to beat the pitch. With a swing more conducive for connecting to deliver balls in play, Gordon will have to rely on his contact and speed rather than his pop and power, limiting the dimensions of his offensive game. Earlier, I mentioned his approach being sound, which is true, but how many walks is he going to draw when advanced pitchers aren’t concerned about challenging him at the plate? Without more strength, Gordon isn’t going to be effective against major-league pitching. His contact ability and legs could make him a nuisance when the ball is put in play, but without the ability to punish mistakes, Gordon doesn’t offer much to dream on when it comes to offensive production.

Q: Does the fact that he is the son of a former major leaguer give you more hope that he will develop?

A: No. I certainly enjoyed watching Dee’s father pitch; he always brought everything he had. But they aren’t built the same physically, and it would be one thing if Tom used to be a 23-year-old shortstop in the minors who eventually found his refinement, and whose body developed strength in his early 20s, so that he became a damn good major league-quality shortstop. If that were the case, I’d probably be more of a believer in Dee, but it isn’t the case, so I’m not over-thinking the connection (not that I assume other people are.)

Q: What do you have against people liking Dee Gordon? You seem to be taking it personally. What gives? It’s not like their belief in the player affects you.

A: Keep in mind that Dee Gordon is still the player that turned my head in person, so this is not intended to be an attack on Gordon the gifted athlete, or Gordon the man. Rather, this is my honest take on his skills, which I do not think warrant such high praise, nor do I think his projections are realistic. Admittedly, this is coming from a guy who thought 17-year-old catcher Jorge Alfaro, who has a .000001 percent chance of ever developing into something, was the next great prospect, so keep that in mind—I know what it’s like to dream. I would just prefer dreaming of highly projectable 17-year-old prospects than 23-year-old prospects that play like highly projectable 17 year-olds.

Falling into the Dee Gordon prospect trap can be quite easy to do, as his tools offer up something satisfying to dream on. However, once you gaze at that 80-grade speed, or witness the range in person, it's hard to tell yourself that it’s okay to want more from a prospect. I’m here to tell you that’s it’s okay to say that you want more refinement from a 23-year-old. It’s okay to say that you want your prospects to have the physical projection (read: strength) necessary to utilize their tools at the major-league level. It’s okay to want more.

One of these days, Dee Gordon might just prove his doubters wrong, and show refinement with the glove, and improved strength at the plate, allowing him to fulfill his projection as a first-division regular at the major-league level. If that happens, not only will I gladly admit that my analysis was inaccurate and take my hits on that front, but I will also be the first in line to watch him play, because if he ends up proving me wrong, he will be worth the price of admission.

Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Dee Gordon,  Q&A

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