Sam Mellinger

With contract talks nonexistent, this could be Alex Gordon’s last spring with Royals

Could this be Alex Gordon’s last spring training in Surprise as a member of the Royals? Barring a long-term and lucrative contract extension, the uncomfortable answer is yes.
Could this be Alex Gordon’s last spring training in Surprise as a member of the Royals? Barring a long-term and lucrative contract extension, the uncomfortable answer is yes. The Kansas City Star

Alex Gordon is in the weight room right now because Alex Gordon is always in the weight room. As much as anything else, this is what Gordon is known for. Obsessive work habits. Meticulous diet. A body that would be hired for one of those get-fit-quick commercials on TV if he wasn’t the best left fielder in baseball.

This is how it’s been for 10 years now and, gosh, has it been that long already? Ten years of spring training with the Royals, a full decade of hope and work. His first spring was 2006, when Allard Baird was still the general manager and Emil Brown the left fielder. The Royals lost 100 games in 2006. That was so long ago.

Gordon has been with the Royals longer than any other player. He is the face of this franchise, and has been for some time, the personification of an organization that built its way from the bottom to the World Series. Back in Kansas City, there are probably more Gordon jerseys than any other player’s. Once in a while, you even see one with his No. 7, from his rookie year.

He has been a phenom and a bust, a third baseman and a left fielder, a grinder and now a star. He has been injured, lost, and he has been an All-Star twice and a Gold Glove winner four times.

He has been everything to this organization, really, his leap into stardom doing as much as anything else to turn all of that talk about the future into reality.

Now, for the first time, it is likely that Gordon will leave spring training with the possibility of this being his last season with the Royals. His contract is up after this season, and he has backed off what he’d said previously: that he would pick up a player option for 2016.

If team and player were to negotiate a long-term contract, now would be the time. This is the time of year Gordon and the Royals negotiated his current deal, but with less than three weeks until opening day there have been no talks.

“Nothing,” Gordon says. “Not one bit.”

These words come without agitation. Gordon is just answering a question. He says he’s happy with his contract, and calls himself “blessed to be in this situation.”

He is working his way back from wrist surgery, and that’s his main focus. There isn’t a lot of room in Gordon’s life for frustration, or angling for a new contract.

He can play for the Royals in 2016 for $14 million, but that would be shocking and financially silly if he’s in good health and doesn’t have a major drop-off this year.

Assuming he maintains roughly the same production as the last four years, there is a general thought around the game that Gordon could get a five-year contract for $80 million or so on the open market. He turned 31 last month and is athletic, with a body type and skill set that generally age well.

The Royals have never given out a contract worth more than $55 million and have never paid a player more than $13.5 million in a season. Paying the market rate for Gordon would mean the Royals breaking type and sacrificing flexibility going forward.

Even with minimal roster turnover, the Royals bumped payroll more than 20 percent this offseason just to stay mostly intact. A similar increase would be needed again next offseason as core players like Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Danny Duffy and Greg Holland progress through arbitration.

The Royals aren’t saying anything publicly about Gordon’s contract. That’s different than three years ago, when both sides acknowledged they hoped to get something done. Gordon had less leverage back then, too, but appeared to have no interest in using it.

His ties to the franchise are deep and unquestioned, and no matter what happens from here he will someday be inducted into the Royals’ Hall of Fame.

But he is at least recognizing the possibility that his looming contract issue may not be resolved in Kansas City.

“I love it here,” Gordon says. “This is where I want to play. But you have to realize the situation. Maybe it won’t happen, maybe it will.”

For their part, the Royals are beginning to brainstorm a future without Gordon. They are in a constant balance between making the big-league team as good as it can be and planning for tomorrow. That’s their struggle with Brandon Finnegan: whether to make him a relief pitcher in the majors or a starter in the minors.

The immediate and financial stakes are so much higher with Gordon.

The Royals’ decision-makers talk often, privately and publicly, of the value Gordon has as both a left fielder and a marketing point.

Losing him would mean much more than losing his spot in the lineup or his defense in the outfield, which makes it curious that the Royals haven’t pushed for more progress with a star player who’s already proved his loyalty. Unlike three years ago, the Royals need Gordon more than he needs long-term financial security.

If a new contract isn’t done soon, the Royals would be in a strange position. A strong year for Gordon would be great in a season the Royals think they can return to the playoffs, but it could also drive his price well beyond their budget.

The whole thing is made more complicated by Alex Rios, their other corner outfielder, also likely being out of contract after the season. Moreover, the farm system lacks clear replacements.

A lot can happen, of course. Gordon could have the kind of season that would make picking up that option the right move. The Royals could make a stronger push to get something done.

But judging from current trends, Gordon could be leaving here in a few weeks to begin his final season with the Royals.

The next time he’s in Surprise he could be wearing a different uniform.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send e-mail to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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