Is it time to write off Alex Gordon as a career bust?
We as a baseball community can be terribly unfair to prospects.
We track these youngsters, scout them and eagerly await drafting them. We rank 'em, hype 'em, apply labels such as "can't-miss prospect" -- setting up, in many cases, outrageously unrealistic expectations. We swap them frequently, oftentimes for players who, ironically enough, didn't miss. The very possibility that they could wind up as good as the "didn't-miss" player makes them seem, sometimes, to be every bit as valuable as the established player.
Then, when they fall short of our expectations, we dismiss them, discard them and ignore them, as if they've done us some great wrong. Many of these times, we do so despite having provided them the most minuscule of opportunities.
If you're looking for the quintessential example of the past decade of such a prospect, one who faced such lofty expectations and has been so readily written off, look no further than Alex Gordon. Heck, at his current rate of progression, he might rank among history's greatest examples of a failed prospect.
Consider that, at the dawn of his big league career in 2007, Gordon:
• Had been selected second overall in the 2005 amateur draft, right behind Justin Upton. Gordon was also ranked the No. 13 prospect overall by Baseball America entering 2006, and No. 2 -- behind only Japanese import Daisuke Matsuzaka -- entering his 2007 rookie season.
• Fetched a $16 price tag in the 2007 League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) AL-only auction, despite having just one year of pro experience under his belt, none above Double-A. To put that price into perspective, he hasn't earned $16 in any of his four big league seasons to date. In fact, he hasn't earned much more than that in those four years combined; his career AL-only fantasy earnings range anywhere from $19-28, depending upon the source.
• Had a baseball card that fetched a $2,550 price tag a year before he had even debuted for the Kansas City Royals. As silly an example as it might seem, it's relevant in demonstrating Gordon's level of hype. Topps mistakenly manufactured this "rookie card" in 2006, and even though scarcity played a part in the lofty price, Gordon's talent also had quite a bit to do with it.
This was supposed to be a once-in-a-generation prospect, the "next George Brett," the kind of player sure to reel in multiple MVP awards. In fantasy, it didn't seem like the question was whether he'd stake a future claim to the No. 1 pick overall; it was a question of how quickly he'd do it.
Unfortunately, things haven't panned out that way, or even close to it. As the 2011 season dawns, Gordon is a mere afterthought in the vast majority of fantasy owners' minds, the kind of player highly unlikely to even earn an average draft position in a mixed league, and worthy of little more than a late-round/low-bid pickup in AL-only leagues.
To be fair, that's the way it should be. Gordon performed unspeakably poorly for the Royals the past two seasons -- .222/.319/.365 combined big league rates -- and worse yet, he battled injuries, including two trips to the disabled list: one for hip surgery early in 2009 and another for a broken thumb in early 2010. He also changed positions last season, and the switch from third base to outfield further diminished his fantasy appeal. (Note: Gordon still qualifies at third base in leagues with a 10-game minimum, but in standard ESPN leagues, he's outfield-only.)
At the same time, it's unfair to declare him done.
There's a common phrase in fantasy baseball called the "post-hype sleeper," and its definition describes the path Gordon has followed: A player who, once regarded a top prospect, has fallen well short of expectations to the point that he's almost entirely ignored in fantasy. Many such highly regarded prospects got off to slow career starts before exploding as "post-hype sleepers," including Phil Nevin, Carlos Pena and Brandon Phillips, just to name three. If you remember their backstories, each of those three players had been virtually forgotten in fantasy at the time of their career breakthroughs.
I'll admit I'm not completely surprised that Gordon has slipped into this status. I wasn't at all on his bandwagon in 2007. In fact, I thought an adjustment period was likely and that his out-of-control hype would doom him for disappointment. He's one player I was right on (though it's worth noting here that I was entirely on Matt Wieters' bandwagon in 2009, so such predictions can be hit-or-miss).
But no one could have predicted this kind of career tailspin for Gordon.
So in a way, it's fitting that it's me tackling the Gordon question. Now that everyone else has tempered his/her expectations, I might actually be more pro-Gordon than most. Let's not forget that he's still just 27 years old, much of his struggles at this level the past two seasons were a direct result of his injuries (especially the hip surgery) and that in spite of his problems, he thoroughly mastered Triple-A pitching to the tune of .315/.441/.560 rates in 2009 and 2010 combined. Gordon also had to adapt to the defensive chores of a position switch, another distraction, last year.
Another thing Gordon has going for him: Left field is his for the taking this spring, and the Royals will grant him every opportunity to claim that every-day role. Having a firm, committed role with the big league club could be a positive for him, and the fact that most people have given up on him could work in his favor.
Of course, we have to be realistic. The prospects of Gordon suddenly exploding as an age-27 superstar (that magical, mystical age!) are also slim. Consider this: According to Baseball-Reference.com, Gordon has earned 4.0 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in his four-year career. Let's consider a superstar-caliber WAR season as 6.0 or above; approximately 12 hitters per season have reached or exceeded that number since 2000. In the modern era (1901-present), only eight players have managed a 6.0 WAR or greater in their age-27 seasons after having totaled no more than 6.0 WAR previously in their careers. Eight. They are:
Greg Vaughn: 5.6 (1989-92), 7.4 in 1993
Matt Holliday: 4.8 (2004-06), 7.3 in 2007
Ichiro Suzuki: 7.6 in 2001 (MLB debut)
Jim Gentile: 3.1 (1957-60), 7.2 in 1961
Doug DeCinces: 5.9 (1973-77), 6.8 in 1978
Scott Podsednik: 0.2 (2001-02), 6.3 in 2003
Johnny Hopp: 4.4 (1939-43), 6.0 in 1944
Carl Reynolds: 4.4 (1927-29), 6.0 in 1930
DeCinces, Podsednik and Suzuki, incidentally, are the only ones who didn't have a "meaningful" fantasy season before the age of 27, with "meaningful" meaning that their primary Rotisserie numbers were fine, even if their WAR was not (remember that WAR also accounts for defense). In Suzuki's case, that was his U.S. debut. And none of this gets into past studies that dismiss the idea of the "age-27 breakout" as a whole; I still say it's a fallacy.
But even if he's not destined for All-Star-dom, why can't Gordon bounce back with something like .280-average, 20-homer numbers, or, to be so bold, something like .295-25? He does, after all, have a 20.1 percent career line-drive rate, a 9.9-percent career walk rate and a .161 career isolated power. While his chances of future MVP awards seem about gone, Gordon still appears to have the potential of an above-average regular.
It's all in how healthy he's looking, what level of improvement he's showing and how comfortable the Royals are with him in their every-day lineup this spring, as well as how late you can land him in deep-mixed and AL-only leagues.
Don't expect miracles, not the kind almost everyone on the planet expected at the time of Gordon's big league debut in 2007 -- but as talented as those same people felt he was at the time, Gordon is absolutely worthy of at least one more chance.
But this is your last chance, Alex.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.