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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

25 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Alex Canzoneri

I don't buy that he was rushed (or rather, that the rushing was the cause of his problems; he obviously ascended quickly); He was awesome in AA, with the only possible point of concern being a slightly elevated K% at 19.6%. The quotes from the FOTs in this article reek of post hoc analysis: "He hasn't been as good as we thought, ergo it's because he was rushed."

For comparison, look at Matt Wieters this year, who came into the season with a pretty analogous track record to the pre-2007 Gordon. When the Orioles sent him to AAA to start the year, the general consensus was that he should be starting in the MLB and the Orioles only optioned him to delay his service clock. Players of this caliber only get to be "rushed" after the fact. Would 200-300 PA in AAA made some kind of huge difference for Gordon? I find that unlikely.

He struggled his rookie year, was a slightly above average hitter last year, and got injured/sucked for less than 100 ABs this year. Not everyone tears the world apart immediately like Ryan Braun, and think the rumors of Gordon's demise have been greatly exaggerated. The last two paragraphs of the article are the most on point, me thinks.

Aug 25, 2009 09:26 AM
rating: 14
 
G. Guest

Were Butler's "ups and downs" any worse than other prospect? Butler is still only 23 and having a pretty good year with the Royals. Greinke had his own set of mental health issues which may have been made worse by organizational decisions.

Dayton Moore does seem to have a pattern of rushing his top prospects. If Aaron Crow signs, what's the over/under on IP before his MLB debut? Yikes.

It will be very interesting to see how Justin Smoak plays if he's on the opening day roster for the Rangers. He'll be close to the same number of professional PA's as Gordon albeit across three levels.

Aug 25, 2009 09:33 AM
rating: 2
 
Ira

The way that Smoak is not beating up on AAA so far leads me to doubt it. But he'll also play in the Arizona Fall league and probably some winter leagues. Then he'll come to spring training and have a chance to win a Major League job.

Does Gordon's 576 at bats include fall league or winter league? how did he do in these leagues? more questions there.....

Aug 25, 2009 10:55 AM
rating: 0
 
Alex Canzoneri

No, that 576 does not include the AFL. He made his professional debut in the 2005 AFL, getting 62 PA and posting a line of .260/.403/.460.

Aug 25, 2009 12:29 PM
rating: 0
 
farrish11

This is so sad. The Royals can't do anything right.

Aug 25, 2009 10:32 AM
rating: 2
 
Ogremace

Maybe it wasn't the Royals fault, but the question remains: why did they rush him? As said in the article, they weren't about to contend or even come close, so shipping him up to the big leagues without time to adjust (as all minor leaguers do) was totally unnecessary. Maybe it didn't hurt him, but it didn't help and was totally unnecessary.

At the very least we can look at this series of events and compare the Royals to a 4 year old with a new toy. They didn't have the patience to allow him to mature and develop but rather just wanted to get the next George Brett on the field.

Clowns.

Aug 25, 2009 10:45 AM
rating: 0
 
rkmt00

I do not, as another poster put above, agree that he was "rushed". At 23, he was older than Longoria or Zimmerman when they made their major-league debuts, and the same age as Wieters when MW made his.

It seems that the "rushed" crowd are under-valuing his time spent dominating college pitching. I understand the aluminum-bat arguments, but I'm unaware of studies that suggest Gordon's development would have been further along had he signed out of high school and had put in an extra 800 at bats in the Single- and Double-A levels instead of the Big XII.

Aug 25, 2009 11:17 AM
rating: 1
 
dtung

I think you're right that "he was rushed" is a common explanation for why some prospects don't pan out because its easy to quantify. However, I don't think you should just trivialize 200-300 plate appearances at AAA, because it amounts to an 30-50% increase in the total number of his professional at-bats (Gordon only had 50 ABs in the AFL in 2006) and at a higher level.

You can say money considerations were why Wieters and Longoria started their second full seasons in AAA, but I think, at least publicly, team officials probably said both had things they needed to work on. Their time in AAA didn't hurt and I recall a short period of adjustment for both of them (small sample size be damned).

Aug 25, 2009 11:05 AM
rating: 0
 
Alex Canzoneri

Of course, you are right. 200-300 AAA ABs probably wouldn't have hurt. This is what I meant to get at: I don't see how the lack of those at-bats bridges the gap between where Gordon is today and his superstar projections, which is essentially the criticism being leveled here.

For what it is worth, some teams (the Braves, for one) tend to skip their top prospects over AAA entirely, feeling that level doesn't really offer too much.

Aug 25, 2009 12:47 PM
rating: 0
 
keeperleaguegm

Great piece.

Aug 25, 2009 11:09 AM
rating: 0
 
Adam Madison

Agreed. Kevin Goldstein has really become the class of BP over the past few years.

Aug 25, 2009 12:09 PM
rating: 0
 
Asinwreck

Kevin was the reason I subscribed to Baseball America's site; he was and is my favorite prospect writer.

Didn't Gordon have other health problems the past couple of years? To what extent might we chalk up his performance to durability issues?

Aug 25, 2009 16:13 PM
rating: 0
 
airlifting

Kevin's the reason I remain subscribed to this website. There is superior writing on the majors littered all over the web.

Aug 26, 2009 08:29 AM
rating: 0
 
Amos

Would love to hear from young established stars about their experience with player development in the minors. It's an interesting piece of the puzzle that we don't get to hear much about.

Aug 25, 2009 11:20 AM
rating: 9
 
Cromulent

Pretty please?

Aug 25, 2009 13:11 PM
rating: -1
 
J. Eldred

Kevin,

I would add to the above plea, but without the necessity of it being a young established star. I'd just be curious to know more about why some teams are good at it and some are not, whether this would be a view from above or the view from a player. What makes an organization good at developing talent? Coaching and instruction? Nutrition? Medical and training staff? The piece you wrote a couple weeks back after the trade deadline, about a day-in-the-life of a traded prospect would be a great model for a similar story looking into player development.

Aug 25, 2009 15:06 PM
rating: 1
 
PeterBNYC

S. Holmes: "When the impossible has been ruled out, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." Gordon is 25. He was/is either ready, or he isn't. It is not that he has been thrown into a pressured pennant contender, or forced to play out of position. Or that he lacks talent, athleticism, etc. So I opt for- Approach. The murmurs around him about resistance to change, not adapting, etc., are Approach issues. I know this is not a BP type point, and we don't have a metric for it, but Holy Moly, Batman, maybe some mentoring at the AAA level would help? (Calling G. Brett- is he is this business?) Anybody? If this kid is lost, an experienced and firm guide might get him out of the wilderness- but he has to want to- again, Approach.

MLB teams aren't much on attitude-rehab, but it would be a great waste of talent for a Royals franchise that can't afford to waste any. Get him some help. It's not like it's a mysterious injury- something is seriously wrong here- Gordon is striking out near 30% of his ABs, and has forgotten how to take a walk. Should this tell the Royals organization something?

Aug 25, 2009 13:07 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

I think Gordon's problems are due in large part to the Royals organization, or lack thereof. If they can not properly value the skills, or lack of skills, of players like Jacobs and Betancourt, can they really guide the maturation of a rookie's skills? Can you also blame Gordon for being resistant to bad teaching? Add in a lack of lineup protection and the pressures to perform and it can affect one's performance. Meanwhile, what does demoting really do if the minor league coaching is so bad that it fails to develop not only prospects but even well-rounded complimentary players. Or has a plan that shifts a good defensive 3B like Teahan to Rf then to 2B or moves Butler all over the diamond.

Aug 25, 2009 13:47 PM
rating: 2
 
PeterBNYC

What he said, too.

Aug 25, 2009 14:14 PM
rating: 0
 
Tim Kniker

The utter futility of the Royals organization for the last 15 years is a great (in some circles) debate. For a long-time, the general consensus has been that they drafted poorly and reached. If you look at the drafts from about 1990 - 2003 and especially the top 5 rounders, its really awful. Save for four (Beltran, Damon, DeJesus and Greinke) in this 14-year span, you have no other players who have made a major impact not only on the Royals, but other teams that they have eventually landed with (okay, maybe you can say Affeldt who they drafted in '97). Heck, look at 2001 where none of their top 5 picks made it out of AA?

However, with Gordon, Hochever, Butler, Moustakas, and Hosmer, most of the time they have drafted the person that most other teams would have drafted in that spot. If most of these guys don't pan out, I think the focus needs to shift more to player development than scouting.

Sometimes, I do wonder about some of the other players drafted in the 1990s by the Royals (Jeff Granger, Juan LeBron, Dee Brown), and if they may have been good players had they been drafted by another organization.

Aug 25, 2009 19:40 PM
rating: 3
 
Richard Bergstrom

Regarding the 90s drafts, I always thought Carlos Febles would've been a great player if he had been handled by a different organization.

P.S. Good to see you still around Tim.

Aug 25, 2009 21:00 PM
rating: 1
 
Brian Cartwright

Schaum is quoted as saying that Braun and Longoria adjusted, but Gordon didn't. I will concede that my projections of college stats needs to be broken down by conference to account for strength of schedule (working on it), but the ones I have are still fairly good.

On just college stats, first line is projection, second is mlb record through 2008

     
BA OB SA BABIP HR BB SO
Braun 274 332 480 326 062 074 239 proj
Braun 301 350 587 328 086 062 209 actual

Longoria 267 328 421 317 042 077 210 proj
Longoria 273 343 532 309 081 091 238 actual

Gordon 258 334 459 297 053 091 205 proj
Gordon 252 330 419 305 039 091 219 actual


The only real difference on any of them are the homerun rates, which *might* be closer with better park and league (conference) factors. Gordon's year in AA was the outlier, which combined with too high of expectations from his college stats made people think Gordon was better than he was, but even a .343 wOBA projected from his college stats is an above average third baseman.

Aug 25, 2009 22:25 PM
rating: 0
 
T. Kiefer

On the coaching/approach/attitude issues: check out

http://huskerextra.com/articles/2009/08/25/baseball/doc4a9343e1bce42612791333.txt

on Gordon's return to the Omaha Royals. He definitely seems to exhibit some denial here, and hostility to Trey Hillman.

Aug 26, 2009 09:59 AM
rating: 0
 
kcboomer

Gordon was not rushed to the bigs. He destroyed AA pitching and was minor league player of the year. Only an organization with a stone-cold stud in place at 3B would have kept him in the minors. Besides Omaha is an old Indian worder for "the place where careers die".

Brett is pretty much on record as describing Gordon as someone who won't listen. If a left-handed hitting 3B won't take instruction from Brett you know the kid is stubborn.

However, if the kid thinks Hillman is lame he isn't wrong about everything.

Aug 26, 2009 10:24 AM
rating: 0
 
Dr. Dave

"He has a reputation among umpires for being a whiner and complainer"

With Pitch/fx, we now have the ability to look at umpiring reasonably objectively. We've seen (some, but not enough) looks at who the most and least accurate umpires are. I haven't yet seen any analysis of which players get screwed the most. I'm betting there's even more variability on the batter side than on the umpire side -- they guys with the well-trained good batting eye will suffer the most, a la Frank Thomas in his first few years.

Maybe Gordon's just a whiner; maybe he really is getting jobbed. It's worth a look.

Aug 28, 2009 06:33 AM
rating: 0
 
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