By Gary Hill
It has been a sluggish start to the season for several of the Mariners’ young hitters. For fans who fret about their future, there is a beacon of hope to turn to. He is not a phenom who is clubbing homers at a ridiculous pace in the hitting-friendly Pacific Coast League. He is not a can’t-miss prospect who is swatting sliders in the Southern League. Strangely enough, he has no connection to the Mariners at all.
He is the left fielder for the Kansas City Royals, Alex Gordon.
Gordon was the strapping young corn-fed third baseman out of Nebraska who spent his college years feasting on NCAA pitching. He swept every collegiate award in sight on his way to being picked second in the 2005 draft behind Justin Upton.
The expectations were sky high. The terms “savior” and the “next George Brett” were so commonplace that you would not fault a person for thinking his full name was Alex Gordon George Brett. Simply being compared to George Brett is the highest compliment any ballplayer can receive in Kansas City.
Before 2006 Baseball America named him the 13th-best prospect in baseball. He went on to spend a season crushing Double-A pitching, hitting .325 with 29 home runs, 101 RBIs and a 1.016 OPS. He climbed the ladder to No. 2 on the Baseball America prospect list going into the 2007 season. He bypassed Triple-A all together and spent the entire 2007 season in the big leagues, but his rookie campaign and the next three seasons to follow did not go according to plan.
He struggled with production and injuries while yo-yoing his way from the majors to the minors and back again. The optimism for Gordon had completely withered away. The following are samples of what was written about Gordon in 2010:
• “Gordon is a former college player of the year and No. 2 overall pick, but he’s 27 years old and has mostly been a bust.”
• “Is Alex Gordon earning the label of Quadruple-A player? Gordon’s future is definitely in doubt.”
• “Alex Gordon Faces Make or Break Year.”
• “He was supposed to be an All-Star by now.”
• “He was supposed to be the savior.”
And so on …
Then 2011 happened. Gordon shook off the shackles of struggle and put together a season that landed him 21st in MVP voting. He hit .303 with 23 home runs and 87 RBIs while boosting his OPS to .879. He followed with another strong season in 2012 by hitting .294 with 14 homers and 72 RBIs while leading the league in doubles with 51.
He is off to a blistering start this year as well, hitting .338 with a .370 OBP and a .506 OPS. Taking a look at Wins Above Replacement on BaseballReference.com reveals that Gordon (14.4) is fifth among all position players since 2011 behind Ryan Braun (15.8), Miguel Cabrera (15.8), Ben Zobrist (15.3) and Robinson Cano (15.1). Gordon has overcome his early career struggles to become one of the most productive hitters in baseball.
How long did it take Gordon to get there in terms of plate appearances before his 2011 breakout season and how does the timing compare to the young hitters for the Mariners?
Gordon was picked second in the 2005 draft and ranked as high as second in the Baseball America prospect rankings. Dustin Ackley was selected second in 2009 and reached 11th in the BA prospect rankings. Justin Smoak was the 11th pick overall in 2008 and rose to No. 13 in the 2010 BA prospect rankings. Montero was signed as an amateur free agent and was ranked fourth, third and sixth in consecutive years by BA.
The backgrounds are all very similar. The early struggles are similar. The big question for the fans of the Mariners remains: Will the results end up being similar as well?