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August 25, 2009

Future Shock

The Alex Gordon Problem

by Kevin Goldstein

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It wasn't that long ago, but Royals third baseman Alex Gordon used to be the next big thing. In 2005, he won nearly every individual award handed out in college baseball, batting .372/.518/.715 during his junior year at Nebraska while also showing enough athleticism to add 23 stolen bases in 26 attempts. "I thought he would be a superstar coming out of college," said one front-office official. He was not alone, as the Royals made him the second overall pick in the 2005 draft, after the Diamondbacks selected Justin Upton.

The following year, in his professional full-season debut, he earned Texas League Player of the Year honors at Double-A, batting .325/.427/.588, while seemingly getting better as the season wore on, as in the last two months of the year, he hit .357 with 19 home runs and 67 RBI in 59 games. People were comparing him to George Brett, and it didn't seem like hyperbole.

Fast-forward to three years later, and Gordon finds himself back at Triple-A Omaha after a move the Royals describe as temporary, and designed partially to "put some joy back in the game" for Gordon. Temporary or no, he has clearly not lived up to expectations. It's difficult to pin down why. "He was as close to a can't-miss [prospect] as there could be," said one scouting director. "But as we both know, there is no such thing in baseball."

So what went wrong? "I'm not sure what we all missed on," said another official. "It's just tough to say." However, in talk to numerous insiders, most hypotheses revolve around not enough or even bad player development. Gordon's first full year in the minor leagues was also his last, as he was the Royals' starting third baseman on Opening Day 2007. "My only thought [as to what went wrong] is that he was rushed up there pretty quickly," said one scouting director. "Then he was expected to anchor the middle of the order, which is tough for any young player."

Another front-office official echoed this same lament. "Forget the performance, the decorations, the hype," said one team official. "How many really good players can you name who had less than 500 at-bats at the minor league level? Think about prospects that you think were rushed even, and you'll see that most had more minor league games than that."

A quick check of the facts shows that Gordon had fewer plate appearances than most need before getting a shot to establish themselves as big leaguers. Here are college players taken in the first ten rounds of the draft this decade who have become established, and their minor league PA tally:

2008 Gordon Beckham   259
2005 Ryan Zimmerman   296
2001 Mark Teixeria    383
2005 Alex Gordon      576
2005 Troy Tulowitzki  590
2007 Matt Wieters     693
2007 Matt LaPorta     815*
2005 Ryan Braun       864
2006 Evan Longoria    881
2003 Rickie Weeks     909
*: Assumed

Maybe the pressure of the hype got to the Royals, but even Matt Wieters got some Triple-A time this year to continue to make adjustments and in an attempt to lessen the brightness of the spotlight. "It's not like they were going to suddenly contend, so I have no idea why they rushed him to the big leagues," commented another team executive, as far as the Royals' decision making with Gordon's development. "But I also have no idea why they traded Ramon Ramirez and Leo Nunez for non-tenders, or why they signed Jose Guillen, Horacio Ramirez, Sidney Ponson, and on and on and on."

Of additional concern is not necessary Gordon's 576 plate appearances, but what he did with them. Greg Schaum, who hosts the Royals post-game show on KCSP 610 AM, sees the team every day and offers a unique perspective as a former college player himself. He sees a player who hasn't made the necessary adjustments. "College hitters are spoiled by aluminum bats," explained Schaum. "They need to learn that they can't hit those inside fastballs and have them go anywhere with wood," he continued, adding even more damning remarks about Gordon's willingness to change. "He has a reputation among umpires for being a whiner and complainer, and there are whispers that he's been resistant to coaching," said Schaum. "[Ryan] Braun and [Evan] Longoria knew they had to change that their habits with wood before that stepped in a big-league batter's box, and Gordon just never made the adjustments."

Others even wonder about a more generalized problem with the organization itself. "Are we sure there's not a Royals component to it?" quizzed one team official. "I realize it's different groups of people involved, but how many players in the last couple of decades have they developed without hiccups?" he continued, noting that even good big leaguers like Zack Greinke and Billy Butler had their developmental ups and downs, while their last two first-round picks, high school sluggers Mike Moustakas (2007) and Eric Hosmer (2008), have struggled as pros.

Still, as for Gordon, he' still a talent that teams are interested in when it comes to the future. "If they're giving up on him, I'd love for them to give me a call," joked one team official, while another remained somewhat optimistic. "Gordon showed improvement last year," he explained. "His on-base percentage jumped from .314 to .351 and his slugging from .411 to .432; with 35 doubles and 16 home runs as a 24-year-old third baseman on a bad team, you had reason to be excited heading into the season."

Most scouts and team officials believe that the hip surgery played a major role on this year's down turn, as opposed to another step backwards. "He's probably not going to be a superstar, and his development-or lack thereof-probably has something to do with it," said one front-office worker. "But he should continue to improve once he's healthy," he added.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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

Related Content:  Gordon Beckham

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