2005 College Player of the Year: Alex Gordon
By John Manuel
When historians--all right, Baseball Americans--look back at the 2005 season in college baseball, they may consider this the Year of the Third Baseman.
Never before have three college hitters who play the same position gone in the first five picks of the draft, dating back to 1965. But pro teams liked college third basemen so much in 2005, they couldn’t help themselves.
Ryan Braun was Baseball America’s Freshman of the Year in 2003 and rebounded from an injury-plagued sophomore season to pace Miami’s offense as a junior. He also moved to third base from shortstop and brought power commensurate with the position with him, slamming 18 home runs going into super-regional play. His all-around tools prompted the Brewers to draft him fifth overall, envisioning him as the final piece in a future infield with Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks and J.J. Hardy.
One pick earlier, the Nationals drafted Virginia’s Ryan Zimmerman, the best defensive player in the country. Several scouts agreed Zimmerman might be capable of moving off third base and has the hands, arm strength and footwork to give shortstop a try. But they also agreed, why move a Gold Glove-caliber player from a position he has clearly mastered?
Zimmerman’s glove was so good last summer with Team USA, he forced Nebraska’s Alex Gordon to move across the diamond to first base. Yet that was not a reflection on Gordon’s abilities.
“He can play third,” an American League crosschecker said at the time. “Just in the game last night, he showed the arm to make the throw from the line, he showed range to his left and he came in well on a ball. He can make all the plays. Zimmerman’s just better there than he is, but Gordon can play third.”
And while Zimmerman hit a team-best .468-4-27 last summer, Gordon adjusted to wood bats over the course of the summer and reversed a slow start. He batted .388-4-12 and was Team USA’s top hitter in the World University Championship in Taiwan, helping lead Team USA to a gold medal.
Gordon’s response? The day he was back home in Lincoln, Neb., after his Team USA tour, he grabbed his bats and went back into the batting cage.
Gordon’s work ethic extended to the field, where he rededicated himself to being the best defender he can be. The combination allowed him to hit .382-18-62 with 23 stolen bases in 26 attempts, leading the Cornhuskers back to regional play after a one-year absence and ultimately back to Omaha. It also helped cement his status as the top college prospect for the 2005 draft, and the Royals—whom he grew up rooting for—selected him with the draft’s second overall pick.
For his performance—standing out in a crowded field, not just of third basemen but of star players—Baseball America selected Gordon as the 2005 College Player of the Year.
If getting beat out by Zimmerman for the third-base job was a wake-up call, Gordon wanted to prove to scouts that he was wide awake. That’s even as he was being lulled to sleep by teams that wouldn’t give him a good pitch to hit.
“We tried everything with Gordon,” one coach said when sizing up the Cornhuskers. “We hit him, we tried to go in and tried to go away. You have go hard in and then soft away.
“Just don’t let him beat you.”
Easier said than done. Stay away from Gordon, and he has the power to drive balls to the other field, a part of his game that has evolved from weakness to strength over his college career. Come inside, and he has the bat speed to get around on even the best fastballs. Miss over the middle . . . well, even being pitched around, he slammed 18 home runs this spring, seven of them in conference play.
Gordon had to perform the way he did to stand out from the crowd of third basemen in the country this season. Beyond the Big Three, the position featured Tennessee’s Chase Headley, who hit .387 with a sterling 60-22 walk-strikeout ratio; Georgia Tech sophomore Wes Hodges as well as a pair of sterling freshmen, Tulane’s Brad Emaus (.346-13-56) and Fresno State’s Beau Mills (.319-22-63).
“There is definitely a lot of depth nationally at third base. It is not only me, Braun and Zimmerman,” Gordon said. “There are quite a few other guys who are pretty good third baseman as well. There were a lot of third baseman picked early in this year’s draft, and I think that is a tribute to the depth at the position. Hopefully all of us can continue our success later in our careers.”
When it came to quality third basemen, college baseball had plenty of competition. As Gordon found last summer, competition can push a player to be his best.
In 2005, the Year of the Third Baseman, Gordon was at his best.