See also: John Manuel’s chat about our selection of Gordon
WICHITA, Kan.–Kansas City Royals fans have salivated over the thought of watching Alex Gordon, the No. 2 overall pick in 2005, play at Kauffman Stadium. They’ve dreamed of how he’ll turn around the organization, become a mainstay at third base, lead the team to the playoffs.
|THE ALEX GORDON
|Born: Lincoln, Neb., Feb.
10, 1984. Home:
Lincoln, Neb. Height: 6-1. Weight: 220. Bats-Throws: L-R.
Highlights:Started all four seasons at Lincoln
Southeast High, finishing with overall numbers of .483-25-112 . . . Was
a three-time first-team All-Nebraska selection and was named one of the
top 100 high school seniors by Baseball America in 2002 . . . Was
chosen as the Gatorade Nebraska player of the year in 2002, finishing
second in the state with a .500 average and 31 RBIs . . . Earned
first-team all-state honors as a defensive back his senior season,
leading the state with seven interceptions while averaging 20 yards per
catch on offense and 35 yards on kickoff returns . . . Helped Nebraska
to the Big 12 regular season title as a freshman, hitting .319 in the
process . . . As a sophomore, Gordon led the Big 12 in homers (25),
slugging percentage (.754), on-base percentage (.493), and triples
(five) . . . MVP of the 2004 FISU World University Championship in
Taiwan, helping Team USA win the gold medal; he played first base while
current Nationals infielder Ryan Zimmerman played third . . . In 2005,
Gordon took home the Dick Howser Trophy as the nation’s top player, as
well as Baseball America’s College Player of the Year award after
hitting .372/.518/.715 with 19 homers in 253 at-bats . . . Was the No.
2 overall pick in the 2005 draft by the Royals . . . started his pro
career at first base in the Arizona Fall League, where he slugged .460
and carried a .403 on-base percentage in just 50 at-bats . . . started
first pro season at Double-A Wichita, where he led the Texas League in
slugging (.588) and runs scored (111) while finishing second in the
league in extra-base hits (69) and third in on-base percentage (.427),
hits (158), home runs (29), and RBIs (100) . . . represented the Royals
organization, along with outfielder Billy Butler, at the 2006 Futures
Game in Pittsburgh at the all-star break . . . was named the Texas
League Most Valuable Player . . . first player ever to win BA’s College
and Minor League Player of the Year awards in consecutive
Just like Hall of Famer George Brett did.
Gordon is the future, they believe.
Those are pretty high expectations that carry a hefty amount of pressure, but Gordon has certainly done nothing to prove those diehards wrong, earning Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year award.
“He’s very impressive,” said J.J. Picollo, Royals senior director of minor league operations. “He’s got that rare combination of speed and power. You don’t see a lot of guys who can run the way he does and drive the ball out of the ballpark the way he does. He’s very well-rounded . . . I don’t know what you could ask anyone else to do in his first full season.”
It wouldn’t have surprised anyone if Gordon had stumbled a bit this season. While he was BA’s College Player of the Year in 2005 at Nebraska, this is professional baseball and he opened the year in Double-A Wichita after making his debut on the opposite side of the infield in the Arizona Fall League last October.
It’s quite a jump to make, it’s a tiring process playing 140 regular season games when you’re used to playing half that, and the pressure was intense. The media wanted him constantly, whether they were newspaper writers, TV or radio stations from Wichita, Kansas City, Lincoln, Neb., or ESPN2. Fans’ expectations were fierce. Everyone wanted a piece.
Yet all Gordon did was go out and impress. Again, and again and again.
“He’s been solid in everything, base stealing, hitting for average, hitting for power,” said Frank White, Double-A Wichita manager and former Royals second baseman. “Definitely all phases of his game have been solid.
“He’s done an outstanding job, he works hard in practice, he takes this game seriously and he comes to try to win every day. That’s what stands out, that he’s been able to maintain it all, and he’s been strong in the clutch, too.”
“He Can Do Everything”
By the numbers, Gordon had a great year: He hit .325 with 111 runs, 158 hits, 39 doubles, 29 homers, 22 stolen bases, 72 walks and 100 RBIs. He also had a .588 slugging percentage and .427 on-base percentage.
Gordon, who was also named the Texas League player of the year and a midseason and postseason all-star, ranked in the top five in the TL in 10 categories–average (third), runs (first), hits (fourth), doubles (fifth, homers (third), RBIs (third), walks (tied for first), slugging percentage (first), on-base percentage (third), OPS (first).
He has been helped by a lineup that includes four other first-round draft picks in right fielder Billy Butler (.331/.388/.499), veteran DH Dee Brown (.307/.346/.490), left fielder Chris Lubanski (.282/.369/.475) and center fielder Mitch Maier (.306/.357/.473) also in the Wranglers’ order.
“I think it takes a lot of pressure off me when you have Billy, Dee and Mitch behind you,” Gordon said. “That’s why I scored so many runs, just because I found ways to get on base and it’s pretty easy for them to drive me in.”
That’s a lot of punch in a lineup, but it doesn’t overshadow what Gordon can do.
“This kid can pretty much do everything,” said Tulsa manager Stu Cole, whose team faced the Wranglers 27 times in the regular season and then in the first round of the Texas League playoffs. “He can hit for power, he can hit for average, he can steal a base on you. And he’s played pretty good third base against us.”
It would have been easy for the Royals to rush Gordon up to Kansas City and enjoy the hype and attendance that would rush forth with the move.
Brett was so taken with Gordon during spring training that he added fuel to fans’ Gordon fever by saying in April that he believed Gordon, based on his athletic ability and baseball skills, could have joined the Royals then.
“I didn’t think I was as good as he was,” Brett said. “At age 22, I wasn’t. It took me a while to become a good player; it’s going to take him awhile. But he’s so much farther ahead defensively than I was at 22, the difference is day and night.”
Taking Their Time
That Gordon has done so well since his first game–he went 2-for-4 and in his third game he was 3-for-5–raised his rep among his teammates.
“He’s sick to do what he’s doing his first year out,” said Brown, who has spent time in the big leagues. “I know amazing is a loud word, but it’s pretty incredible what he’s doing.”
Even so, the organization has been adamant that it will not rush its players this year. That’s different from past seasons when the Royals bumped players from Double-A to the majors too quickly, only to watch them fail and be sent back. No one wanted that to happen to Gordon; too much was riding on his success.
Moving slowly was a decision solidified by new general manager Dayton Moore. “When you’re dealing with the future of young players, you don’t want to make mistakes, so you err on the side of caution,” Moore said after he came over from the Braves in June.
It was a smart move by the Royals to keep Gordon and Butler with the Wranglers; they now have a shot at a Texas League championship. Experiencing winning is an area the Royals have emphasized their young players have the chance to be a part of in their minor league development.
The Wranglers had the second-best record in the league at 77-62, and the team has most of the building blocks of the future Royals. While the four recent first-round picks provide the nucleus of a future lineup, Wichita’s postseason rotation might be even more important to Kansas City’s future. Along with Zach Greinke, trying to work his way back to Kansas City, the rotation also includes lefthander Tyler Lumsden and righties Billy Buckner and 2006 No. 1 overall pick Luke Hochevar.
A TL championship might make Gordon feel better about his season, but it won’t satisfy him.
“I’m never really satisfied,” he said. “I set my expectations high and I think I can always do a little extra better. When the end of the season stats come out, I always think I could have hit more home runs or had a better average.”
The one area he was pleased with early was his play on the bases. He had three stolen bases in the season opener on April 6 at Tulsa. He had nine in the season’s first month.
He wasn’t as aggressive on the bases as the regular season wound down in an attempt to save his body for the postseason.
Developing A Rhythm
Gordon has tweaked his hitting a bit from his college days. When he first arrived in Wichita, he was stiff in the batter’s box. He still was successful, but he worked with hitting coach Al LeBoeuf religiously to improve that swing.
“In this game,” White said, “you have to put in the time. He’s been on the field. He’s been in the cage.”
Gordon now has a strong rhythm in the box, and he swings at quality pitches and is patient enough to wait for those pitches. And while he showed mostly pull power in his pro debut in the AFL, he’s hit to all fields at Wichita.
“Through the season you go through ups and downs and you find things that work for you and don’t work for you,” Gordon said. “I’ve opened up my stance a little more. It’s felt more comfortable at the plate. I hit the outside pitch a lot better.”
Gordon slumped briefly midway through the season when he suddenly began to feel fatigued. His average, which had gotten as high as .341 in late April, dipped to .295 on July 15.
This is what the Royals organization had been waiting for. They knew already that Gordon was skilled; it’s why they drafted him No. 2 overall. But what they didn’t know is if he could handle the jump in the number of games played, if he could handle a slump and fatigue.
Gordon had started feeling worn down in mid-June. To make it worse, he played the entire all-star game at Arkansas’ Ray Winder Field, which irked White.
“We were anticipating him playing two or three innings, then he played the whole game,” White said. “So when he came back, he was still a little fatigued, and we gave him a day off.
“Then he got a homer to straightaway center field in Springfield and it seemed like he got a second wind and he kept it going from there.”
And that might be the understatement of the year, as Gordon put up one of the strongest finishes of anyone in the minors, hitting .356 with 19 homers from July onward.
What helps Gordon in most situations is his natural poise; he handles adversity and a game-winning home run with the same aplomb and composure. If he had an 0-for-5 night or committed an error in two straight games, you could count on Gordon coming back the next day with just as much confidence and character as if he had won the game with a homer to left.
So it was no surprise that he wasn’t about to let a fine season be derailed by fatigue or allow himself to get wrapped up in a slump.
As for that slump, it didn’t last long. One day after his average fell to .295, he went 3-for 5-and was back up above .300. His average has steadily crept upwards and ranked third in the TL.
Weight Room Warrior
That Gordon has been strong throughout the long season is a product of his focus on his physique. He’s a monster in the weight room, where he spends three or four days a week during the season. While he rarely maxes out, he can bench press 225 for 10 or 15 reps.
“I don’t try to get bigger, but I want to maintain what I gained in the offseason and not lose it,” he said.
As much talk as there has been about Gordon’s offense, he’s no slouch defensively. When White was asked about what Gordon could do at third, the manager quickly said “Everything.”
Oh, Gordon made 16 errors and he needs to work on his one weakness, his backhand. Improving that area will come as he continues as an every day player. Overall, though, he’s a highly skilled defender.
“He can do everything,” White said. “He makes the routine play, he makes the difficult play, he makes the difficult play when he dives left or right. He catches pop-ups over his head down the line, his throws are accurate, his footwork is good.
“I mean, he’s done everything probably over and above the expectations coming out of spring training.”
Which means Gordon has whet the appetite of Royals fans even more. It’s hard to blame them for their high hopes; Gordon can do little wrong.
Joanna Chadwick covers the Wranglers for The Wichita Eagle.