On his first day as a Kansas City Royal, Josh Willingham leaned back in a clubhouse chair and took in his surroundings. Across the room, a group of reporters ringed a corner locker. Willingham turned to new teammate Danny Duffy and asked about the status of the locker’s inhabitant.
“So Alex Gordon,” Willingham said to Duffy, “he’s like the face of the franchise?”
Duffy nodded. By now, the secret is out. Sports Illustrated profiled Gordon last week. He received his second All-Star selection last month. He has barged into the conversation for American League MVP. His fourth Gold Glove appears assured. He is the mild-mannered leader of a first-place club and general manager Dayton Moore’s organizational paragon.
Gordon, 30, may also become the litmus test for the organization’s spending capability. His emergence on the national stage coincides with an upcoming opportunity to be compensated as a cornerstone.
He can become a free agent after next season, as long as he declines his $13.25 million player option for 2016. Gordon would enter the open market at a time of unprecedented wealth around the game. His next contract should far surpass his current four-year, $37.25 million pact. To lock him down, the Royals would have to offer the sort of deal they have never before given out. His price could approach nine figures, rival officials say.
For his part, Gordon indicated he plans on picking up his 2016 option and delaying his free-agency. A message left for Gordon’s agent, Casey Close, went unreturned, so Gordon was asked if Close would approve this maneuver.
“Casey’s not the boss of me,” Gordon said with a grin. “I’m sure he’ll have things to say and whatnot. But when it comes down to it, it’s my decision.”
The appropriate setting for a long-term extension, for the chance to grant Gordon his desire to become a Royal for life, would be next spring. The two sides have not engaged in any discussions, according to people familiar with the situation. Moore insisted the situation had yet to appear on his radar, and quipped his baseball operations department is “not as forward-thinking in baseball as you members of the media think we are.”
The Star polled a group of big-league executives and talent evaluators to measure Gordon’s value. The consensus was he could command a five-year deal after 2015 worth somewhere between $75 million and $95 million. One executive guessed the bidding might approach the seven-year, $130 million contract given to Shin-Soo Choo this past winter.
One dissenter projected a deal around four years and $52 million. Gordon, the talent evaluator explained, is a “tough guy to gauge since so much value is wrapped up in defense at a non-premium position.” Another scout disagreed, setting a five-year, $75 million deal as “the floor,” unless Gordon takes a “hometown discount.”
Gordon accepted something resembling a bargain during his first round of negotiation. In the spring of 2012, he instructed Close to strike a fair deal for both sides, and not to bother him with the particulars.
“I made it well-known that I wanted to be in Kansas City,” Gordon said. “And he knew that. It got to a point where I was like, ‘You can always try to keep going higher and higher (in salary).’ I was like ‘You know what? That’s fine. Let’s just get this taken care of.’”
Even if Gordon reprises this strategy, potentially leaving millions on the table to remain a Royal, his contract would reach unprecedented heights for this franchise. The largest commitments in club history are a pair of five-year, $55 million deals, one for Mike Sweeney and another for Gil Meche.
The situation creates a potential headache for a club already facing a busy offseason. The Royals must decide whether to part ways with Billy Butler. They must solve the $15 million riddle of Wade Davis and Greg Holland. They must find a replacement for James Shields, locate a new right fielder and hand out half a dozen raises in arbitration.
At this point, as they vie for their first playoff berth in 29 seasons, the Royals have yet to discuss Gordon’s status in detail, Moore said. They have budgeted for him to be on their roster in 2016. But Moore declined to say whether he expected Gordon would pick up that option.
“I haven’t given any of those things any thought,” Moore said. “I’d just be talking off the top of my head. I would just be talking just random thoughts right now.
“I mean, Alex Gordon, he’s a terrific player. He’s a terrific person, an incredible talent. What’s he’s gone through and what’s he accomplished is one of the most memorable and greatest things that I’ve seen and been a part of in sports.”
A first-round pick in 2005, Gordon received a demotion to the minors, suffered injuries and converted to left field before emerging is a star in 2011. He now serves as the team’s defensive cornerstone, a sabermetric darling in the outfield.
Gordon represents a litmus test for the financial value of advanced statistics. He lacks an eye-popping offensive resume. He has hit 20 homers in a season twice. He has never driven in more 87 runs. His on-base plus slugging percentage since 2011 heading into this weekend is .815, about 22 percent better than league average, but far from elite.
Yet other metrics adore him. Gordon led all position players in FanGraphs’ version of wins above replacement as of Friday, a nudge ahead of Angels superstar Mike Trout. Since 2011, Gordon ranks sixth among position players in the statistic, which compares a player’s overall production with that of a Class AAA substitute.
Consider how Gordon compares with a player like Hunter Pence, a 31-year-old right fielder. San Francisco signed him to a five-year, $90 million deal that began this season. During the last four seasons, Pence has hit 19 more homers than Gordon and driven in 59 more runs. But according to FanGraphs’ version of WAR, Gordon has been worth 5.8 more wins.
Gordon himself is still coming to grips with his placement among the game’s elite. When a reporter mentioned certain metrics now considered Gordon as the most valuable player in baseball, he could not contain his smile.
“For you to say that just kind of shocks me,” he said.
“I think the whole MVP talks that I’ve heard in the last day is because we’re winning. That’s why it happens. If we were on a losing team, there’s no reason I would be in that kind of consideration, or anything like that. That’s what winning does. It brings accolades and all the good things with it.”
Winning also generates revenue. No longer are mega-contracts the sole province of big-market clubs in New York and Boston.
In recent years, Close has become perhaps the game’s premier agent. Just last winter, he negotiated a $215 million extension for Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, a $155 million contract for Japanese sensation Masahiro Tanaka, a $135 million extension for Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman and a $105 million extension for Cincinnati pitcher Homer Bailey.
A similar deal, albeit on a smaller scale, awaits Gordon — especially if he declines his option. One day last week, as Gordon watched television on a Coors Field clubhouse couch, he was asked one more time. He really planned on delaying free-agency? Gordon leaned back and laughed.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know. Win the World Series, then think about it.”