2015: .271/.377/.432, .299 TAv, 2.9 bWARP (limited to 104 games and 422 plate appearances after missing nearly two months with a groin injury)
Customarily, I don’t like to ladle out hot takes, but this being Thanksgiving week, I want to share my bounty of steaming takes with you, the BP reader. Gather around, everybody, and warm your bellies and souls with this piping hot take: Alex Gordon is a very good baseball player. Just try not to burn yourself.
Gordon, the very good baseball player, would, on paper, appear to be an ideal fit for a Cubs team in the market for an outfielder with power, who puts the ball in play, gets on base, and can hit at or near the top of the order. So far, Gordon’s free-agent market has been slow to develop, but he is a true five-tool player.
On July 8th, when Gordon went down with the injury, he was hitting .279/.394/.457 with 11 home runs, and headed for his third consecutive All Star game. When he was healthy in 2015, Gordon remained every bit the player he was from 2011-2014. During that four-year stretch, Gordon was worth more than five wins per season on average, by bWARP, while averaging a slash line of .283/.356/.453 with 19 home runs, 39 doubles, a 10.5 percent walk rate, and 156 games played. His durability, very good bat, and tremendous defense makes him the complete package as an outfielder.
Gordon will turn 32 during spring training. How does he fit? Why might it not work? And what are the chances he signs with the Cubs?
How He Fits:
Despite being a couple years north of 30, there has been little sign of regression. Before being injured on July 8th, Gordon was hitting .279/.394/.457, and his approach at the plate remains disciplined. Put simply, he does not chase bad pitches. In 2015, he swung at just 23.2 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone, which ranked 12th lowest among the more than 200 players with at least 400 plate appearances. That is remarkable for a player who struggles mightily with breaking pitches (see below). Gordon fits the organization’s patient approach at the plate, and his dominance against fastballs fills a slight hole exposed by the New York Mets starters during the playoffs.
Gordon’s patience, solid on-base skills, extra-base propensity, and ability to handle left-handed pitchers (.255/.330/.420 in his career, .280/.377/.440 in 2015), makes him a flexible lineup option for Joe Maddon. He can be penciled in to any spot from one through six, and in his career, he has at least 120 plate appearances in each of those spots.
Defensively, Gordon is as good as it gets in left field. For those who overreacted to Kyle Schwarber’s postseason outfield defense, visions of Gordon manning Wrigley’s left field are enticing. His arm and range are elite. From 2011-2014, Gordon won four consecutive AL Gold Gloves and three Fielding Bible awards as the game’s best defensive left fielder. But don’t take my rambling, nonsensical word for it. A source no less than the Field Bible had this to say after the 2014 season:
“It’s a three-peat for Alex Gordon. Three Fielding Bible Awards in three years. And it was unanimous. Every voter had Alex Gordon ranked first. Gordon saved 27 runs for the Royals on the year. This is the highest total ever recorded for a left fielder since the tracking of Defensive Runs Saved began in 2003. ”
At first glance, Gordon seems like an ideal fit for the Cubs. So why won’t it work?
Why It Won’t Work:
If Gordon’s offensive game has a weakness, it’s his performance against off-speed and breaking pitches. Since the start of 2011, he has struggled against changes (.369 slugging percentage), curves (.274 slugging percentage), and sliders (.368 slugging percentage). His whiff percentage against these pitches is 11-16 percent, which are rates more than twice his rates against fastballs. Gordon is a fastball hitter. Therefore, it’s worth considering, as he enters his mid-30s and his bat speed wains, how Gordon will age as an offensive player.
Which brings us to the expected length of any deal. Some have him in the neighborhood of 5 years, $105 million. Five seasons would take Gordon through his age-36 season. He is more than five years older than Jason Heyward, and two years older than Dexter Fowler. For a team that has made drafting and acquiring young, cost-controlled offensive talent its top priority, signing a 32-year-old for five seasons would seem like a definite shift in philosophy.
True, last offseason, the Cubs traded for 31-year-old Miguel Montero, but he had just three years and $40 million remaining on his deal. Fowler, 29, was in the last season of his contract. This offseason is our first chance to see how Theo & Jed approach acquiring position players for a team with real title aspirations. With a remarkable young offensive core, are they willing to go long-term for a (32-year-old) bat?
Make no mistake, if the Cubs want Gordon and feel he is a key piece to their next half-decade of championship contention, they can afford him. They have the resources, regardless of their aggressiveness and success in the free-agent pitching market. However, a team does not maintain long-term roster and payroll flexibility by getting in the habit of committing to four or five-year deals to players over 30.
Will Alex Gordon be a Cub?
Gordon is a very good hitter and the league’s best defensive left fielder. A five-win player, he would no doubt improve the Cubs, a team with a playoff roster even without him. Despite his age, there has been no reason to believe he has begun his decline and will not be the same player in 2016.
Having said all that, it seems unlikely Gordon will sign with the Cubs. Though it’s still early in the free-agent process, some experts have him pegged as returning to the Royals. Would the Cubs go to $180-200 million with Heyward before they went to $100 million with Gordon?
It will be fascinating to watch play out. In the meantime, readers, enjoy your holiday with some real sustenance, because humans cannot subsist on baseball takes alone. Happy Thanksgiving!
Lead photo courtesy of Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports